Resolution in Discord
by Summer Fletcher
The criminal’s hands pressed to the floorboards. On his left hand, the two outer fingers were missing. On his right, the two middle fingers. Dark hair clung to his sweating skin like another layer of filth the sun had forgotten.
The scribe swallowed and scribbled a set of chords to indicate the lack of fingers.
The golden, earthy melody comprised of the councilmembers’ seven voices shivered with sharp, discordant notes. The heartsong receded, gathering into wary, dark tones like a storm closing in to wash away entire fields—but the tone said something else.
The scribe, Rapt, scratched out a misplaced note. The phrase was more accurately represented as a call for order, not an outright condemnation.
Lackfingers pushed himself to his feet between the ironwright and carpenter who stood at either side. His captor and accuser. Lackfingers towered over these two, despite hard living; sunken cheekbones and black-ringed eyes.
The heartsong of the council rose again, and Rapt recorded each note as they planted the opening chords of introduction into the air for all to hear—a sweet, gentle progression.
Lackfingers pressed his lips together and twitched his face away, as though slapped.
The heartsong repeated, clarifying. Perhaps the prisoner had not heard, or not understood. Perhaps there was something wrong in his mind. The councilmembers required a response.
With watering eyes, Lackfingers obliged. His own will gathered to join the song of introduction. He could have flowed seamlessly into the whole. Instead, five hammering, grinding bursts erupted out of Lackfingers.
Two short beats, three shorter, five suspended chords, and the heartsong was splintered. Rapt recoiled, his notation jerking across the page. Only violence. It barely registered as chords; even the tone clusters of children’s babble had some intelligence within them. There were songs of rage, songs of anguish, songs of loss; but this was nothing short of an assault. He had never heard notes that slashed so—and yet, mind-to-mind, Rapt resolved the notes. This wasn’t an outburst at all. This was Lackfingers, saying his own name.
Rapt scribbled a lightning bolt with five strokes: two short, three shorter. Beside it he set a challenge mark, to indicate his doubts about its accuracy.
The council’s music frothed with their own natures. A water wheel in the thick of spring. Rock with which to build and veins of ore with which to refine. The collected knowledge of how to be one voice among many in the safety of the mountains. They were as alive in each song as each councilmember’s vocation, the callouses on their hands, and the legacy of their forebears. Their song existed, because the heartsong existed. The music grew stern. We know of you, it said. We know of your kind. Adjust your tone or you will be punished.
The prisoner’s lip thinned, a smile meant only to show teeth. From this position he offered forth the song of introduction, its welcome and acceptance, modulating each note with the harshness of a child’s inept banging, substituting volume for eloquence. He spread his mutilated hands, chains clinking, and the lilt of his melody dripped with contempt.
Two of the councilmen barked chords of anger, attempting to drown Lackfingers out, but Lackfingers lowered his eyes, smiling to himself.
Rapt kept writing, capturing every chord. The outrage of his captors harmonized beautifully with the strident chaos that bled from Lackfingers’ mind. The problem was clear. Lackfingers was a dissonant.
Dissonants couldn’t join the heartsong. Most went mad and killed themselves before the end of adolescence, and yet here was one alive.
Rapt stopped writing, mouth dry. How had this one survived? He shuddered to think what life would be like, where that was the baseline of a community’s harmony.
Rapt swallowed his revulsion, and listened carefully, sketching out the proceedings as they layered and unfolded around him.
Lackfingers searched the faces of those attended, speaking again. His tone no longer lashed, but seethed and roiled, its counterpoint dark and expansive. His music was corrupt and inverted, anguish expressed as joy, and mirth as defiance. He strained to be understood, defending his own existence.
The melody unrolled, surged, and spiked; but while it could be written, it was not understood. Exile, the counselors sang in unreachable octaves. Send him to live far away, where he can harm only himself.
Rapt expected the prisoner to look angry. Surprised. Mocking, even. But there was no tension in his rests. Silence, to him, seemed an inevitability.
Lackfingers held out his hands and the ironwright released him from his chains. They clattered to the floor without rhythm. Lackfingers kicked them away, spat, and left.
The council adjourned with the usual atonal muttering, untuning from each other and shifting into the next few hours’ work. Rapt made final notations and revisions, and kept coming back to the challenge marks he had made. No matter what he did, he couldn’t quite capture Lackfingers’ heartsong on paper. It was right at the edges of his understanding.
Rapt had served in the governing house these fifteen years, and never met an adult dissonant. But he had noticed shifts in the heartsong. When water grew scarce, it shifted. When a child was born, it shifted. These shifts over generations, his teacher explained, made the songs of other villages inscrutable; but that was academic. They were too far apart, melodies separated by geography, walls of mountains, and time. This same teacher made a habit of blacking out errors and copying manuscripts over in perfect completion, erasing the errors. Rapt’s folios were littered with challenge marks.
When Rapt returned to his study, he labored over his notes from the trial. He set out fresh-pressed paper to make room for that evening’s transcribing. He copied carefully and diligently into what would become the official record, but Lackfingers’ inscrutable heartsong wouldn’t leave his mind. Certain voices would match to a horn or a string—but Lackfingers was like nothing he’d ever heard. It layered like a six-string strum, but rang out like a tin platter dropped to the floor. The strangest thing was the way it built upon itself, heaving and rumbling like a landslide the longer he went on. Even his name—merely a name—sounded like a threat. Yet the song of introduction, a welcoming open round that invited each voice to join, seemed to lash him. The inversion must go both ways for dissonants. The few records Rapt had of heartsongs from other places, usually songs of peace and friendship, battered his skull like too many instruments reverberating into clarions of war. The effort of listening at all was too painful, leaving translations incomplete.
Perhaps, in exile, Lackfingers could find a place of peace.
The long-pole chimes at the center of town didn’t ring, but the heartsong shifted at the edge of Rapt’s perception. Louder than an errant bad dream. Sharper than a curse flung at a thieving mole. Wariness. Danger. Less than a mile away. Rapt arranged the pages on his desk so they could dry. He grabbed a small notebook and a number of charcoals, wrapped a pale blue grassdye shawl around himself and ran to the town square.
The town was thick with music; fast and trepidated as a flock of wrens taking flight. While the square itself was mostly empty, the heartsong was thick in the air. Curiosity, fear, worry, panic, all weaving and blending through each other; new appoggiatura shrilling as soon as the last had been resolved. Rapt slipped through the dark to the source of the disquiet, a small crowd of six, facing down a group of strangers.
Their song grew louder as Rapt approached. Their faces were white as milk, with a ruddiness that spread across their cheeks and nose like a rash. Their clothes were loose, flowing, and far less colorful. The four of them stood back to back, pale eyes wide. With each gesture, the decorative metalwork on the sheaths of belt blades flashed. One of them clutched a leather tube. There were no councilmembers close enough for the strangers to see. They looked to Rapt.
The strangers’ music clashed and grated, jolting through Rapt’s mind like a blow to the head. Rapt pulled out his notebook and started sketching the music. He couldn’t tell if the sounds were notes or percussion, the rhythm itself impenetrable. Tetrachords merged in haunting, strange ways, as if the notes of each grouping continuously off-key. Their heartsong jutted and spiked in a chaotic polyphony that made no sense. There was insult in it, yet their faces were as desperate as an unconvincing lie. Two councilmembers, Care of Herds and Hinge Fitting, pushed to the front of the group and stood between Rapt and the strangers. After a few measures. Hinge grimaced in Rapt’s direction, looking for an explanation.
Rapt winced and shrugged his shoulders, his heartsong halting and uncertain.
Hinge and Care raised their heartsongs in sonorous harmony to calm. To soothe. To command. Rapt’s people quieted and stepped back, but the strangers winced as one.
Hands went to their belts.
The baker just behind Hinge shrilled warning. The song vibrated high and urgent above the councilmembers, above the strangers, cutting straight through the din they made. Rapt lost the thread of the pattern.
One stranger, skin the color of fresh-sliced bread, turned his attention to Rapt. While the song was impossible to decipher, his face was not. Honey-pale eyes wide with fear. His hand went to a cloth pouch on his belt and he fished around in it. Rapt stepped forward. Another stranger stepped back and gripped her weapon.
The mason leapt between the stranger and the councilmembers, erupting in threat. The stranger might have doubted the song, but body language left little room for doubt. Strings of notes blurted out from homes all over the village, asking what was happening. Someone pushed the baker too close to the strangers, and the stranger responded by throwing the baker to the ground.
Rapt jumped back and out of the fray as those he grew up with forced the strangers back. He served by recording events, and that was his duty now. Rapt fled to the edge of the street and climbed over an herbalist’s stall to get a better vantage point. His charcoal nub flew across the small pages of his book. He scribbled the melody as best as he could, marking layers, approximating the notes of fear, of outrage, and above all of it, the bizarre discord of the strangers. While the strangers were better armed, the heartsong of the village crescendoed, growing higher and lower at once, a unified threat.
The honey-eyed one sang a fracture of notes, and the other, still brandishing her sword, yanked him back. The leather tube fell from his grip. Another breath, and they returned to the darkness whence they arrived.
Rapt eyed the leather tube where it had rolled into the grass beneath his vantage point. He untied and opened it, nearly dropping the sheets of paper within. They were finer than what he made for himself, sweeter-smelling, and blank.
The councilmembers song wound to a close, and Rapt would be expected to report on his notes. Rapt clutched his book to his chest, and returned home to work. He would get no sleep that night.
Rapt set candles to burning, and set ink to paper, rushing to make copies of his notes before the strange sounds faded from his memory. They echoed and bounced around his brain, distorting like sound bouncing around a canyon into nothing.
He was taught that there were cities long ago. Giant clusters of riotous noise—too many needs to create a harmony. Too many voices to find a heartsong. These fell, splintering into small collectives. Consistent melodies, steady rhythm. One set of time.
Rapt pulled out all the instruments in his study, trying to match the strange pitch and tone. There had to be relationships, relative meanings within their song. None of the drums sounded right. He could approximate the pitch of their notes, but never the relationship from one to the next within the melody. He couldn’t figure out how to tune anything to represent the melody without straining his fingers. He tapped out a rhythm on graduated drums, but it obscured the nuances. A sliding whistle approached the same notes, but the sense behind the notes was missing harmonics the whistle’s tiny barrel could not produce. They were elegant and dissolute, shrill and fluid; but the dimension of meaning was like trying to tell soil from shit by sight alone.
He gazed up at his groaning shelves, sorted, dusted, but never purged. All notes and errors in evidence. Proof that he and others existed and created no gaps in the heartsong. Even the dissonants who came to a close. The notes that didn’t fit, didn’t flow, still had a purpose. Testament to the progression of the heartsong. A gap was a wound in the place of a rest.
He experimented, scribbled notes, and spread his failures across several desks to dry until there was no more room. Casting about for more space, Rapt found the record of Lackfingers’ trial. In the air above his notes, he traced the exile’s statement. His muscles knew the pattern before his mind realized it. The progression in measures four and five read as arrogantly now as it had sounded before the council.
But maybe it wasn’t arrogance at all. Rapt looked at his notes again. The progression in Lackfingers’ statement was the same as the strangers—split between measures nine and twelve.
Rapt brought the two sets next to each other. Open fifths and octaves evolved before his eyes, shredding apart and slamming back together. It was like trying to define a hawk through the experience of a vole, rather than the dance that brought them to the fateful moment of their meeting. Rapt drew a squiggly line that dove down into an open fifth, and then cut back up. It soared, and the landscape of the strangers, their experience and context, the heart of the notes, spread out beneath. There had to be a bridge.
The strangers hadn’t gone for weapons. They had seen Rapt scribbling in the dark—searched for their own paper. He put his quill down and stared at his notes, the pattern emerging like the realization there is a body beneath a funeral stele. He wrote out the equations, factoring in common notes and common rhythms, employing the art of mathematics to give the same name to seemingly unconnected things.
If anyone could help him decipher the strangers’ song, it was Lackfingers.
They were closer than they’d realized, but Rapt didn’t know how to make himself understood when his song of soothing was a threat. Didn’t know how to approach armed strangers and not give offense. There was a hole in the heartsong. If there was a chance he could fix it, he had to try.
He packed his notes, some warm clothes, a bit of cheese, and set out to look for the dissonant.
The dawn chorus sang to Rapt, from bird’s throats to mountain’s roots. His footfalls moved in time. Harmony was everything. Harmony was the only way to communicate. Rapt’s own heartsong was a satisfying melody within the whole. An inoffensive, neutral timbre. But he knew what soaring joy was. How that music moved. It was all there in the records.
And yet, as Rapt walked, dirt crunching downbeat of his breath, the first moon singing to his right, and the second moon humming to his left, he imagined their cruelest inversion. A rotting, corrosive reality in which night and bird and root sang against him. What would it be like to endure an unending assault on his senses? It wouldn’t be long before he poured boiling oil into his ears. Or smashed his head against jagged quarry stones, or drowned himself in a screaming river that gently babbled to everyone else. Rapt repeated to himself the queer heartsong of the strangers. It was easier to think on that than all the dissonant children who couldn’t make themselves fit the world.
After several hours, Rapt came to the remnants of a ruined barn the herders sometimes used in poor weather. The place droned, gossamer wisps of the heartsong quavering in the receding dark around it. He had been here before. As a child, Rapt had followed older children to this spot to see the bones of a horse that had been trapped by a mudslide. The bleached skeleton had looked peaceful, soft dead grass beneath a hollow skull. The other children had used the heartsong to overpower him then, making him stay there until he sang of disgust and terror. It wasn’t so hard to make himself fit the world. Not then, anyway.
Voles skittered through the brush as he approached. Part of the roof had caved in. The horse was still there, but it had also been made to fit the world, hanging half-bleached and jawless on a nail where the door used to be.
Rapt’s hands, complete on the left and whole on the right, trembled. The blood in his fingers vibrated in tremolo. He hoped, and feared. He stepped closer to the house, and when he came within a few steps of the horse head, he produced the tune he had heard in the courtroom: Lackfingers’ five, lashing notes.
Nothing stirred within.
With the clumsy affect of a bully, he sent forth the same five notes.
The response was much quieter than he expected, bass notes building one over the other like the music of a snarling beast.
Pale shoulders. Dirty hair. Lackfingers emerged from the doorway. Enormous. Skinny. A starving powerful thing.
Rapt sang a delicate plea into Lackfingers’ mind. Hesitant. Doubtful. Not knowing how to weave a melody that would please the outcast. Lackfingers’ head twitched, and his lip curled. A defeating chord blasted Rapt.
Rapt nearly buckled, then shot back with five notes of anger, warping and twisting Lackfingers’ name.
Lackfingers smiled in a patronizing way, humored by Rapt’s nerve. He beckoned with one meaty hand, and the two shared shelter.
Rapt opened his notebook and showed the comparative notes. He did his best to repeat the sounds the strangers had used, his near-perfect recollection on display for whatever insight Lackfingers’ could offer. Within each measure, Rapt tried to draw analogies between two heartsongs that were foreign to him. They sing as you sing, his chord progression demonstrated. Lackfingers took this in, and though he scowled, his shoulders relaxed, and he didn’t interrupt again.
In the final bar, Rapt asked, simply, and clearly, for Lackfingers’ help.
Lackfingers repeated the phrase back to Rapt. Then wiggled his remaining fingers. The exile spat Rapt’s heartsong back at him. Splitting it, splintering it, breaking the melody into vitriolic imitations, the final three chords shaking Rapt like a baby bird.
Rapt held his head, collecting himself. He sang the song of plentitude, of gratitude, and care, pushing with all his strength, and the key changed. Dissonance lifted the song like an earthquake, shifting every chord a half-step up, further corrupting each perfect fifth into an augmented fourth—a tritone—in an approximation of Lackfingers’ heartsong.
Lackfingers watched him, the dismissiveness beginning to break. Rapt’s offering seeped into Lackfingers’ consciousness in a way he could understand. In exchange for his help, Rapt would convince the village to provide for Lackfingers in his exile. He would be fed, clothed and otherwise left in peace where his heartsong wouldn’t trouble the village, and their heartsong wouldn’t push him any further into the madness that made him sever his own fingers.
Lackfingers’ punched one of the beams and it cracked without breaking entirely, the sound silencing Rapt’s song before he could finish. Lackfingers sang, slowly and with careful enunciation, three soft chords. Assent.
Rapt heard a hollowness in Lackfingers’ response. It all but confirmed that the mental singing that matched Rapt’s heartsong—that matched the village’s song—pained him. What Rapt offered would keep Lackfingers tied to that pain.
Rapt had forced Lackfingers to fit, and felt only remorse. He held out his pack, offering a silent meal. Lackfingers twitched his head to one side, as though shaking off a fly, and took his portion.
They worked from morning until evening. When it became too much, one would storm off to relieve himself. Blank pages filled, the two of them communicating with gestures rather than song whenever possible. Rapt copied out bars on each blank page and Lackfingers watched, tapping his thumbs. Hurry up.
As much as Rapt recalled the strangers’ song with near-perfect pitch, he couldn’t make sense of it. Not without a consistent formula with which to build a new system of notation. Lackfingers bid him to repeat what he had heard. Rapt did. He made a tic on the bar, but it was wrong. Lackfingers bade him to do it again. And again. Rapt repeated the off-key, frenetic chaos, and Lackfingers held up his pinky, drawing the pattern in the air, and gradually teased out not just structure, but depth.
Lackfingers pointed to one of the open fifths Rapt noted in his original record. Then he copied it on a blank bar, and made an ‘x’ tick between two out of tune notes. Rapt argued that those notes didn’t exist.
Lackfingers scowled, and recreated the sound, including two non-existent notes, to create a perfect fifth. Lackfingers sang a halting and stiff impression of the song of joy, and Rapt wrote what he perceived. Then Lackfingers shifted onto another song, jabbing at the paper so that Rapt wrote it just below the first. When Rapt had completed his notetaking, Lackfingers snatched the charcoal from his hand, and re-wrote the bar with double the amount of lines with thick, angry tics, nearly blacking out the page.
Rapt pushed him back angrily, before he scribbled out all of their work. No sooner had he realized what he’d done, Rapt squeezed his eyes shut, bracing to protect himself from Lackfingers’ heartsong.
Lackfingers gave him a strange look, his expression almost pitying. Slowly, carefully, Lackfingers got up. The song of a people was not the people. The work was not the paper. The exile grimaced, but his heartsong was gentle:
Take me to them.
Rapt was afraid. He had never been far from his people, didn’t know what the world would become in the absence of their heartsong. But the councilmembers had charged him to understand. He had asked for Lackfingers’ help.
Rapt gathered his things, and they traveled over lichen-crusted foothills after the strangers.
They heard the strangers’ heartsong before they saw them. Then, scrabbling over an outcrop, Lackfingers hauled Rapt up to peer over the edge of the ruddy stone. Walking in on a path they’d made themselves, some thirty strangers moved in a column. For every five of them, there was a shaggy, curl-horned cow laden with bundles. Flowing clothes protected each person and beast against the cold, the sun, and brambles. Their dyes weren’t as bright as Rapt remembered, though that might have been the dust. They wore their wealth in experience, their roots curled into each other rather than the land. The heartsong of the mountain whispered along tufts of grass, hinting at all the notes Rapt couldn’t understand. The strangers had been here before, long ago, but only the mountains remembered.
Rapt’s notes were but a drop in that history.
Lackfingers darted out from the rocks, and Rapt slid gracelessly in the scree to follow, clutching his bag and his notes.
The exile and the strangers caught sight of each other, but no one sang. One adult broke away from the column. They wore all grey except for a panel of red fabric from their left shoulder to their right hip. Heartsong held in abeyance, belt knife visible but not under palm, this one walked toward Lackfingers.
Rapt caught up, shuffling through his papers for the right one to show them. His nose and mouth filled with the fragrance of human sweat, animal sweat, and long-doused cookfires. Drawing out the pages and holding them up like a shield, Rapt mimicked the song he had heard that first night in the village, lilting the tones into a question to lay bare his uncertainty.
The stranger glanced from the one to the other, as though Rapt’s sounds and Lackfingers’ hands were equal cause for concern.
Lackfingers snatched the papers out of Rapt’s hands, pushing him back. Rapt leapt to strike Lackfingers, to recover the papers they had worked so hard on—
Then Lackfingers opened his heartsong. Not to Rapt, but to the stranger. He sang the opening notes of memory and story. He sang the extra lines Rapt had tried to argue against. He sang the space and breathing room within those lines. He sang of animals kept stunted and chained for their meat. He sang of dogs being muzzled because they barked at danger too often. He sang of secrets, and dark places that endured, even though the people would not look at them. He sang of dead children, smashing their heads against the wall because their parents had the heartsongs of strangers, and how pain brought the relief of silence. Tending a real wound eclipsed the need to tend wounds of the soul. Lackfingers had not killed himself, as others like him had done. Only the disgrace of self-mutilation—losing his own fingers—let him see clearly enough to pick his way back to reality. The raking ‘kindness’ of the villager’s songs, his family’s songs, had shredded his mind.
This went beyond translation. Those that didn’t fit, didn’t fit, and never would.
Rapt had averted his eyes in shame. When he looked up again, he watched his companion hold out the pages, then crumple them. Charcoal dust smeared against itself, blacking his six remaining fingers, and destroying the extra bars. The heartsong of the strangers blended with the whisper of the mountain through the grasses. Lackfingers found his resolve here. Something sharp and real and terrifying built a refuge for his sanity—just solid enough to bring him here to this moment—even when night, bird, root, and his own people were against him.
The stranger extended their hand, and Lackfingers took it. The stranger didn’t flinch at his touch, and Lackfingers almost shuddered in gratitude. He turned back toward Rapt, sunken cheeks, dirty hair. Clear eyes.
The scribe gathered the abused papers, smudged beyond all recognition, their rare and diligent work gone. Lackfingers would go with the strangers, and the strangers would leave. Rapt looked back at the village, and thought of his groaning shelves. The councilmembers soaring and welcoming tones. He was afraid of the strangers. Afraid to leave. But A gap was a wound in the place of a rest, and there had been so much wounding because of what they couldn’t understand. The village had a record of him. His teachings, his records, and his mistakes; and there was one more thing he could offer as a scribe. He was no warrior. No leader. It wasn’t his role to bring the heartsongs into alignment, but he could at least prove that they were there. Create a record, a guide, a bridge. Beauty in the dissonance.
Rapt sang to Lackfingers, soft and brief, just enough to ask, not enough to hurt him.
Lackfingers sang in return, slowly and with careful enunciation, three soft chords.
One Line of Red rejoined the column, with Lackfingers and Rapt in tow. Rapt turned to a clean page and began his notes anew.