Author's Note: Entry for the WA One-word Prompt Challenge. I was given the word Drive to use for both title and theme. This thrilled me as I decided sometime back that I wanted to revisit a time frame in Erik's life and the word is perfect. "Drive" fits into the timeline of "Shadowcrest's Hammer", part of my "Nightingale's Odyssey" series. The series is based off of Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera", and Susan Kay's "Phantom". My tales continue on after the original novels with Erik, the disfigured masked man that is the Opera Ghost, having used his magician's skills to fool Christine into believing he died in her arms. Following his deception, he goes into self-exile in America so as to place an ocean between himself and his desire. But America isn't the shore of dreams coming true. After sneaking into Manhattan, Erik is forced to live as a pauper in the tenements of the Bowery. In need of a living, Erik has sacrificed his pride and taken to the streets with his Stradivarius playing to collect the meager coins offered for his music. He recently befriended another phenomenal violinist, an old blind Romanian who goes by the moniker of Blanjini. The man who gave Erik his current nickname, the Bowery Nightingale.I did not have as much time as I wanted to polish this. But I wanted to get something up for the challenge, so here it is for what it is worth.
Every morning I stepped out into deserted pre-dawn Bowery I swore the pain would lessen. Every morning I bowed my head beneath the weight of that same bald-faced lie. The shame stung me as I buried my masked face in the hood of my cloak, the neck of my Stradivarius gripped in my firm hand. She was ready to release her voice to the day. But she had no eyes to see that her performance graced no concert hall. She bore no ears to listen to the crude hawking of the marketplace when her performance should have evoked grandiose applause.
No. I alone bore the weight of this dreadful compromise. To play a master's work instrument in the pit of human depravity for naught but a handful of coins. A place where more cart horses turned their ear to her song than humans did.
A putrid odor hung in the air, thick enough I swore I could cut it, a vile mix of unwashed masses mingled with the fetid excrement wafting from the overflowing outhouses. Not that the air in my tenement dwelling smelled any sweeter. Escaping the assault to the senses was nigh impossible. Had I a true nose beneath my mask I should partake of snuff … if I could afford such a luxury.
I leaned against the paint-flecked iron work that supported the elevated train and stared at my scuffed shoes, I could count each joint in my toes through the worn leather. The chill of the cobblestones seeped through the soles. Yet another reminder of how far I had fallen from the opulence of the Opera days and one more impending expense, unless I should desire to go barefoot this winter. The ravenous teeth of the Bowery would be the death of me if I did find some way to escape the stigma of the immigrant. I had no intention of permitting that fate to occur.
A rhythmic tap echoed on the cobblestones to the final guttering of the street-lamp's flame. At least I was not alone in my beggar's misery. His shuffled steps paused at my side as he cocked his head and chuckled. "What's this? Has the Bowery Nightingale perched out here all night? Or has he learned a new song to greet the dawn?"
I smiled, even though his milky eyes could not possibly perceive it below the cut of my mask. His fine hearing would detect it on my voice. "A fine rosy dawn it is, Blanjini. Perhaps the day will provide us with treasure." It was he who dubbed me the Bowery Nightingale. I no more knew his real name then he did mine. Like many who struggled for their daily bread, the world cared little about the lives of two wandering street minstrels. They came. They listened. They dropped a coin or a small handful if they felt inclined to do so. They moved on and forgot us, never knowing the truth of why day after day we returned to this decaying crossroads. Though the coins were essential, they were only the smallest part of it.
Blanjini tugged at his tattered wool vest and set his cane aside. He opened his violin case and pulled out his violin varnished with years of his sweat. In the pre-dawn haze she blushed pink. My own Stradivarius gleamed in my hand as I brought her up beneath my chin. The bow rested on the strings waiting for the first tuning chords of his. After a brief essential interlude the two violins sang with one voice.
So, it began.
Music composed for the grandest halls in all of Eurasia frolicked in the decrepit slums of the Bowery. Before I closed my eyes to savor the playful cascades penned by Mozart, I spied the wistful smile spreading across his wrinkled face. I knew where his mind had gone. For mine had traveled to the same place. A grand stage secure in the depths of the mind, a distant memory set alight again through the power of music. Like a curtain drawn back from the stage, the dismal miasma of our current existence dispersed.
This … these chords. These were the only escape afforded us here. The only voice we could use to alter our reality beneath the heel of our captor, poverty. Twin creative souls, from our fingers we drew forth chords of gold and silver more precious than the finest threads of a tapestry. We flew to the heavens to accompany the Seraphim. Together we danced in the enchanted forests and into the high mountain crags in search of the mighty Valkyries.
Music was our chariot, the strings of our violins the mighty steeds pulling in tandem. Whether the world accompanied us on our journey mattered not. Our hearts beat to the secret rhythm we alone perceived.
If we did not play, we would die. Not in a literal sense, but the unanswered drive alone would abandon us to sheer madness. In the torrent of music the groans and complaints of the inhabitants of our ward faded away beneath the refrain of a songbird. The foul stench of our existence replaced by wild flowers blooming on a pristine hillside. Transformation … true magic to create worlds within this dismal world.
I sighed, caressing my Stradivarius to me as she sang the notes I bid her to play. In twin voice, Blanjini's violin brought forth the harmony, delicate as a butterfly's wings alighting on a spring breeze.
A shrill bellow slaughtered the sweet butterfly.
The bow across my strings grated as every muscle tensed amidst the crashing reality. The glade vanished. The squalor materialized around me. I snapped open my eyes to the crowded market street. Blanjini's violin hung from his hand as he cocked an ear toward the left side of the street, the same area my own ear judged to be the affront.
A man leaned out a filth frosted window, a tweed cap clutched in his hand, shouting out in Irish Gaelic across the street. A moment later, a window on the opposite side of the street banged open. Another man leaned out and shouted back in Italian. Back and forth like trebuchets on a battlefield, they fired off heated insults. I cringed at the mothers cupping their hands over children's ears. Were it not for the clothing speaking of their ethnicity, it should be simple to know by which shouter in the match spurred them to censorship and thus which of the offending lads they understood.
Blanjini tugged on my sleeve. "Come now, tell me, what's all this about?"
Beneath the mask I bit my lip.
"Nightingale, I have heard you speak many a tongue before. What is the row?"
Italian and Gaelic overlapped in a muddle of words. Only years of practice untangling crowds of chatter aided me now. Were I not so experienced in the world I would have been blushing. "Humanity," I muttered. "Of all the foolish things to beat a breast over." I doubted either one held command over the other's tongue. But they had just enough grasp to know they'd been insulted.
"And that would be?" He raised an eyebrow, waiting as I sorted out a fresh exchange of indignities.
"Fairly well amounts to a pissing contest."
He jerked his head, the corners of his mouth turning up in mock-surprise. "I am astonished that you would use such language."
"It is Rossi's opinion that O'Leary's only ingratiating trait is the ability to find the bottom of a whiskey jar. O'Leary, more or less, likened Rossi's worth to the testicles of a sterile donkey." I ducked into my cloak hood trying to shut out the noise. No one else seemed to be any more successful than I. Many stood agog at the two men volleying expletives over the street. Carts stopped, clogging the flow until everything backed up. None could escape the interrupting display. "They appear to be engaging in a long-brewing argument."
Blanjini rubbed his chin and replied in Yiddish, "The two of them look with their eyes, listen with their ears, and understand like a wall."
I chuckled. "Precisely, my wise friend, for we know where this goes. Look around us. Not a man upon the Bowery is any grander than any other. Not a stitch straighter. Not a bit cleaner. We all reek of the tenements. We are here. What a trivial difference it makes from which country we came originated. However, to these two men it appears to be vital."
"And now the rest of us suffer headaches from this nonsense. Bah. They sound like geese squabbling over the last kernel."
"Close." I paused to listen and shook my head. "And there it is. The stock from which they came is case enough to declare war where we have been exiled to."
Blanjini tossed a hand in the air. "Ask any who fell in Romania, we all bleed the same."
I had no need to ask. I knew well the color of blood, the texture of the parting flesh beneath. I too bled the same. Yet here only a blind man saw me as human. Among those deemed worthless, I held no shred of esteem. When grown men could not see commonality with one another why should I consider such a notion conceivable that even they would ever accept me?
My finger absently plucked a chord.
A mischievous grin tugged at my lips. I gazed at Blanjini and tucked the violin beneath my chin. "Shall we put an end to this fracas?" Drawing the bow over the strings I played an Irish folk-reel. The Romanian cocked his head briefly, then gradually readied his own violin, a smile growing. The first notes of an Italian folk tune joined the Irish. He'd chosen well, as I knew he would.
Heads turned, one after the next. The drive of the music bewitching their ears. The shouting match between O'Leary and Rossi dwindled as the lure of music stole through the consciousness of the crowd. Various versions of lyrics leapt into the air to the tunes. Reflections of different regions and times … but all the same core. The tunes meshed perfectly, complimenting one another. Their roots were the same to music, the derivations lost in the crossroads of time.
Did they guess? Did they know? As the crowd broke into a vigorous dance to our frenzied impromptu composition, I cherished the little secret joke. Two exiles, one from Romania and one from France, playing two tunes, one from Ireland and from Italy, drove them into unity.
Music, a language that transcends any border.
O'Leary vanished from the window and a moment later appeared in the street. His feet beat a rapid tattoo to the tune. Within the next repeat of the tune Rossi burst through the crowd and kicked up his heels. The spark of competition lit their eyes.
Fine. I sawed away at the strings, Blanjini keeping right in time with me. In the middle of the street the men spun and stomped in a display barnyard roosters would be proud of.
O'Leary placed his hands on his hips and beat the cobblestones with the soles of his shoes. "This is how it's done, you piece of meat to vile for the street cur to take!"
"Hah!" Rossi, clapped his hands and kicked up a feverish dance. "My week old son can kick better than that."
If I half closed my eyes their silhouettes blurred. I could not determine one from the other. Both danced in wild abandon soon joined by men and women who set aside their bundles. The street swelled with voices singing, feet dancing.
Blanjini's bow never hesitated as he leaned toward me. "Call me a fool, but did Saturday arrive early this week?"
I moaned, the after effects of that first Saturday I had joined in the weekly street party still fresh in my stomach. His words recalled to my tongue the taste of something akin to kerosene. The Bowery was not known for serving the best vintage in alcohol. And I, being far to polite, refused none of it. What I do recall of that next day remains far from pleasant. Predominantly it was the view of the inside of a bucket. The music brought me back. The life-affirming need to let her voice drift in the air. Of course since the first evening I had been the wiser and navigated a way to politely refuse some of the tribute afforded to the musicians.
In truth, by the tide of mirth spreading through the Bowery so it seemed that the weekly holiday of the downtrodden had come early.
In the middle, O'Leary and Rossi toed the line like two bar scrappers. Only their punches were dance steps cheered on by the crowd. They displayed fierce grins as the rules of their confrontation changed.
I laughed, letting the reel leap into the air. The men were but puppets on the strings of our violins. Blanjini and I traded off leading the phrases coaxing Rossi and O'Leary to the line in turn. We both drove up the tempo to a feverish pitch, the men spun and circled one another faster and faster. Until at last, our strings close to breaking from the tension, we released the final chord.
The men clasped hands. One word between them. "Ale." Off they pushed through the panting crowd.
Coins rained on the cobblestones at our feet. Blanjini and I both bowed as we would before a royal court. "Nightingale my good friend," he whispered, "remember as you rise from this commoner's ground that a mighty emperor once was driven mad by the spell of a little bird's voice. Do not take your gift lightly."
"One should perish such a thought. For I have already made that mistake and lost the heart of my greatest treasure, dear Blanjini. Just as it drives me, music is the true bewitcher of every soul."