Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Last Kobzari

The wind kicked up on the apartment roof as Anna unclipped the last of her laundry off the line. She glanced up to see nothing but crawling gray swirls with darker ones in pursuit. A sigh slipped out as she thought about tonight’s dinner and the ingredients she still had to buy. Hefting the basket of clean linens, Anna decided it was time to give the boy some more responsibilities.
“Lexie? Where are you, child? Lexie!” She shook her head. He should have heard her coming down the stairs, but that was a boy for you. “ALEXAN—”
            “Yes, Mama?” Alex said as he popped out of their doorway. “And call me Alex—that’s what the other boys call me.”
            “When you stop scaring me like some baba yaha from the shadows, then I will call you what you want. You almost made me drop the laundry.” She glanced him over. He was only eight but already came up to her shoulder. Soon he’d be eye to eye with her and then taller still, just like his father. He had the same red hair, the same blue eyes, the same toothy smile—he would someday become quite the man. Wiping the sprouting memories from her eyes with a sniffle, she motioned with her head, and he followed.
            She set the laundry down with a thud on the kitchen table and looked at Lexie. Puzzled, he stood there nervous, not sure what she had to say.
            “Hands over your eyes and turn around.”
He did as he was told. A few silent seconds passed.
            “Okay, turn around. And uncover your eyes.” Anna was now holding a small wad of cash, her grocery money. She had always seemed to make it magically appear before they went shopping but he had no idea where she kept it. “I need potatoes, onions, and sausage. Just tell Mr. Gozdenovich I said ‘the usual amount’ and he’ll know how much you need.”
            Alex nodded as she handed him a bill. He wondered if money always felt this warm.
“If you bring me ALL of my change and ALL of my groceries, THEN you can run back and get five cents worth of candy.” He beamed at the thought of the possible combinations of penny candies he could buy. “Well get going! It’s six blocks one way. And no turns! I could watch the whole time if I wanted, but I won’t.” She cradled his cheeks in her hands “And it’s because I trust you.” She released his face and simply stared at him.
He snapped back to reality with these final words. She ‘trust me’ he thought. He paused, then grinned back at the large woman who beamed at him.
 Since his father had disappeared two years ago his mother had changed. The once boisterous woman now barely spoke to people when they went out. Besides the grocer, the landlord, and Father Jankowich at church, he couldn’t recall seeing his mother speak to any other adults. Maybe if they visited his dad’s cousins in Chicago she might talk with them, but he only met them once. They were the only other people at his father’s funeral. The cousins had stayed for almost two weeks, but he barely remembered it now.
“Well do you want candy or not? I can not cook what I do not have.”
“I’m going. Love you Mama!”
She went to call back, but he was already out the door.
When it came to school, Alex liked science and history but struggled with reading and arithmetic. He knew enough though that one penny got you five penny candies and that a nickel was five pennies. By his math that was… probably more candies than he could eat in a night. Alex never figured out the math, but he didn’t really care. Mr. Goz had that big cash register for adding and subtracting, so what was the point of him taxing his brain?
Alex’s pondering of his future fiscal endeavors were cut short as a strange sound caught his attention. Having crossed the street he could clearly pick out the sound of a string instrument. Its music was hauntingly simple yet sounded as complex as an ensemble. As he passed by the subway entrance, he came upon the source of the music.
On the back side of the stairs, next to the protective railing, sat the most peculiar man Alex had ever seen. His hair was stark white and long, the tip almost touching the ground where he sat. His beard and mustache were a match, reaching down past his lap. The shirt he wore was made of large swaths of brightly colored fabrics. Some seemed shiny and silky, while others velvety and soft. He wore a matching hat and funny, puffy shorts to complete the ensemble. Alex was reminded of costumes he had seen during the six grade play of Robin Hood, but only vaguely so. The old man’s outfit definitely seemed like stage garb, but old and well-worn, like an actor who was always performing. He sat on a short stool with odd-looking legs, a half-rusted coffee can in front of him. The instrument he played sat on his lap and reached up to his shoulder. It was wide and squat, with a short neck, and dozens of strings.
The man’s fingers moved in bizarre twisting patterns that produced a mellow and hypnotic sound. Alex’s mind was flooded with his mother’s tales of her childhood home outside of Kiev. His mother had called this instrument a kobza, and said that those who played them were called kobzari. Anna told her son that a horrible man did horrible things to all those who used to play the kobza. She said that the duma, the story songs of the kobzari, were too beautiful. His mother said this beauty frightened the horrible man, so he destroyed them all, and replaced them with another instrument called a bandura. Anna thought that using the bandura to play a duma was like using the moon to grow a flower. She said that those now called kobzari were not bad men, but fakes put in place by the horrible man. She told him the dumas they played now were also fake, and that the true dumas had been lost with the kobza and kobzari, but perhaps they were still out there somewhere, waiting to be found.
He knew their story well for he had heard it countless times. Every night after dinner his mother would sit in her room and stare at the same picture of his father. She would call Alex to her and retell the story of the kobzari until tears filled her eyes. He would hold her and they would sit, only the whimper of his mother breaking the silence of their apartment. As he thought about his mother, the song came to an end, and the man held up the old coffee can, no expression crossing his face.
Alex then realized the man’s eye were still closed and had, in fact, been that way the whole time. His mother had told him another fact as well.
“The blind kobzari sing the truest, most precious dumas of them all,” Alex whispered to himself.
As the man put the can down a large, snaggletoothed smile crossed his face. He opened his eyes to reveal two completely white orbs. The old man opened his mouth and Alex half expected a violent, sepulchral scream. When melodic laughter emerged the boy almost fell over in surprise.
“So there are those who still know of kobzari, da? And of the guild too I’m sure! And so young!” The voice bore a thick Ukrainian accent like Alex’s mother’s yet had the comfort of a warm towel after a cold shower. “Keep your money, I will treat you to a TRUE duma.” With that the man started playing again, only the melody was completely different.
To Alex, it seemed simpler, more hypnotic. Then the man began singing in a way that reminded Alex of the choir in church. It was slow and passionate, sad yet hopeful. He couldn’t make out most of the words but picked out the Ukrainian words for “road” and “towns”. He also picked out the words “duma” and “kobzari” several times. It was beautiful yet had undercurrents of sadness and longing. Alex wasn’t sure why he knew this, but he felt that this was right, that he needed to hear this song. At times the strings almost seemed to sparkle with a silvery light. Alex was transfixed, unable to move or even think. As the last note faded the world suddenly seemed more lively and fuller than a moment ago.
“You like it? Come tomorrow and I will play another for you again. But don’t tell your mother, no need to ruin dinner, da?”
Alex nodded excitedly, barely listening after ‘Come tomorrow…’ He did a quick bow and turned toward the market, running as fast as he could. As he ran, he heard a melody similar to the first one trailing off in the distance. The man was gone on Alex’s way back with groceries, and still missing on his way to and from getting candy.
He wasn’t there the next day either as Alex headed for the market again, this time picking up vinegar and cabbage for his mother. On his way back with the food however, Alex faintly heard music coming from the subway entrance. As he made his way down the steps the music steadily grew in loudness and clarity. It was the same tune he had heard the very first time from the old man. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he saw the man sitting at the far end of the platform, his back against a large green door. Underneath him was the same odd-legged chair and in front was the same half-rusted coffee can.
As the song ended the man looked up at Alex and a large, snaggletoothed smile enveloped his face. “My young fan! How pleased I am to see your return!”
“Why are you down here?”
His smile faded slightly at the question, yet he didn’t hesitate. “I feel I will need to be moving on soon, we kobzari are what you call ‘itinerant’. It is a fancy word for ‘moves around a lot’. Enough of that now, let us hear another duma, da?”
And with that his fingers again began conducting themselves in a strange, serpentine dance across the strings. From his mouth came again that hauntingly sweet yet sorrowful tone. This time Alex picked out the words “sleep” and “earth” but couldn’t make out much else. Again too, he kept hearing the words “kobzari” and “duma” repeated throughout the song. Despite the poor lighting Alex once again thought he could a see a faint silvery shimmer from the strings of the kobza. Transfixed by the instrument Alex failed to notice the golden hue the old man’s eyes took as they blinked open only to turn back pale white as he blinked again. As the last note echoed its way down the tunnels the world once again seemed to speed up for Alex. Alex could now hear the noise of an approaching train.
“Come again tomorrow, child, and another duma I will perform for you.”
Alex went to answer, but his reply was quickly drowned out by the sound of brakes screeching. The man simply smiled, nodded, and resumed his playing. As Alex approached the stairs, he could faintly hear the sound of the kobza amidst the sounds of people and trains. Halfway back to the surface he no longer heard the gentle tune. As he stepped onto the sidewalk, he thought he heard a distant rumble of thunder. Looking up at the roiling grey clouds overhead he wondered if rain might finally come this evening. He heard a rumble again as he reached his stoop, but again the clouds left the ground dry.
The following day brought even darker skies and near constant gusts of wind. Sent on a mission to procure borax for laundry, Alex was warned if he wanted to dawdle do it when he went for candy, not for soap that could be ruined in a storm. Heeding his mothers advice he swiftly made his way to and from the market. As he passed by the subway, he paused to listen for the music, but heard only the faint noises of people and trains. On his way to get candy he paused by the entrance and listened again, but heard no music. He made his way down the stairs but still failed to catch a note of the old man’s kobza.
Approaching the spot where the old man had been yesterday Alex noticed the green door the man had been leaning against was now ajar. Hesitating, then approaching cautiously, Alex reached for the door. At the slightest touch it creaked open. He immediately heard the faint sounds of the kobza.
Sparse light bulbs lit a vaulted service corridor as Alex slowly advanced. Reaching a “T” intersection, he stopped and listened in both directions. From the right came the distant sounds of an approaching train, to the left came the familiar melody he had quickly grown to love. He followed the passage left, hearing the music increase as he descended a series of short steps. The music grew steadily louder as the smell of  wood burning filled his nostrils. At the end were two alcoves to the left and right, and a chained-off doorway straight ahead. About waist high on an adult, about chest level for Alex, a large white sign with red lettering hung from a chain, but he didn’t care about that now.
The large alcove to the right had a small fire burning, a hole in the roof leading to some ventilation or drainage systems acting as a chimney. A bedroll lay nearby with an old blanket crumpled next to it. The man sat in the alcove to the left, sitting on the same odd-legged chair, the same half-rusted coffee can in front of him.
            As his song ended he looked up and showed his broad, snaggletoothed grin. “Welcome my young friend! Are you anxious to hear another duma, da?” He went to start his song but Alex quickly stopped him.
            “I want to hear it, but first I got a question.”
            The old man held the kobza for a moment as a strange expression, almost a frown, almost anger, crossed his face but was quickly replaced with the familiar snaggletoothed grin. Afraid of the sudden silence Alex began nervously chattering.
            “Why are you down here? There aren’t any people. How can you make any money if there aren’t any people?” He suddenly hoped he hadn’t sounded insulting.
            “Silly child, those who want to hear my music will always find it when they seek it. You yourself found me, so too will others as they have the need. Enough of this silly talk, let us hear another duma, da?” With that he began to play and sing.
            Once again Alex found himself ensnared in the complex web of the kobza’s sound and the kobzari’s voice. He thought he heard the words for “grandmother” and “woods” and again repeatedly heard mention of kobzari and duma. The faint light of the corridor and dancing light of the fire made the man’s fingers seem to come and go, almost seeming to disappear at times. This gave Alex the impression that the strings, which faintly shimmered silver, were moving of their own volition. As the song finally faded Alex was once again left with the feeling of the world speeding up.
            “Can I come tomorrow as well? Will you be here or elsewhere?”
            A stern look crossed the old man’s face, then instantly softened to a smile.
            “The music is always there for you child. But a storm is coming and I have to be moving on as is. But yes, you can come and seek me out to play for you tomorrow as well. Now off with you.”
A stomach growl reminded Alex of his awaiting candy. He gave a small bow, turned, and made his way back to the surface. The music he heard as he was leaving was once again the original tune he had first heard. By the time he reached the platform the only noises were of trains and commuters.
The next day the clouds in the sky took on a violent disposition. The wind to howled in pain as if to respond. Alex did not bother looking up this day, nor did he notice the winds whipping his face. His mother hadn’t needed anything from the store this day, she had just rewarded him with another nickel just for being a good errand boy. She said his timeliness had earned him an ‘incentive’. He wasn’t thinking about the candy. The only thing ‘sweet’ Alex wanted was to hear the enchanting melody of the kobza once again.
 He wore the grin of an eager child on Christmas morning as he approached the subway station. He took the terminal stairs three at a time while holding the hand rail for support. By the time Alex made it to the platform, he was giggling to himself. Quickly skipping his way to the door he failed to notice how still the station was. He pushed the neglected service door open and felt his pulse increase.
By the time he arrived at the “T” intersection, Alex thought his head might explode from anticipation. A sudden realization stopped him in his tracks. He couldn’t hear any music yet. Slowly, Alex made his way to where the old man’s camp was, pausing every few steps to listen for the kobza. His spirits were nearly destroyed when he arrived at the camp only to find it vacant. Just as the tendrils of despair were about to entwine his heart, a faint noise brought a ray of hope to his darkening mood.
“Could it…” Alex whispered to himself. He’d know soon enough.
As Alex approached the chest high metal chain the sound steadily grew louder. Eager for a new, fresh duma he lifted the sign and made his way deeper in. Even if he had bothered reading the words “warning” and “storm drain basin ahead” Alex still would have followed the music to its source. After a short curved hallway, and down several flights of stairs, the passage finally opened up into a large, circular room. This entire room was filled with the old man’s mysterious melody. In the middle of the room the old man sat on his odd-legged chair, playing his silvery stringed kobza. He stopped suddenly, looked up at Alex, and smiled.
“Now that I am having an audience proper, let us begin our duma for today, da?”
And with that the performance started. Alex nodded silently, his eyes already completely transfixed on the kobza.
“This will be like none other you have heard before, I promise” the man said as he blinked, his eyes turning golden. But Alex was already lost in the serpentine dance of his fingers. Mesmerized by the silver strings and entranced by the haunting melody, he had no clue that a storm raged outside. The rest of the world became a blur—only the duma existed now. Alex didn’t notice when water started coming into the room. Nor did he notice his shoes getting wet. He failed to notice when the water had risen to his knees, or to his waist, or even to his neck. All he heard, all he could think of, was the music.
 Alex also failed to notice changes in the old man. He failed to notice the stool growing bigger and bigger. He missed when it grew a fourth leg, all of which now resembled chicken feet. He missed when the strings grew longer and thicker until they were one long silver rod, almost like a broom handle. He never took note of when the man himself seemed to swell and pulse, becoming a massive and hunched crone. The music was still in his ears as darkness came over him and water filled the room.

Anna sat in the kitchen staring at the clock. What was holding that boy up, she almost thought, but her ponderings were cutoff. From the window, faintly audible over the rain and wind, she thought she heard a kobza. A real kobza. Outside, on the roof of the building across the alley, a strange old man sat on an odd-legged chair, playing a silvery stringed kobza, and singing a haunting tune.