Leicht: The Story of Pachelbel's Kanon
The glockenspiel surveyed the town from above — casting its eye across the town square.
Below she stood. A warm breeze weaved through her ankles, sweeping up the hem of her skirts in the busy Marktplatz. Vendors filled the space from wall to wall, calling out the day’s specials. Cheese in one corner, “fresh” fish in the other. A mix of meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruits, cobblers with free mending for your second pair, and weavers with surplus supplies.
The noise blended into the footsteps treading the cobblestones, and carts and horse hooves clacking on the pathways. To her ears the sounds were like bees on a hot summer’s day.
She pressed her hands into the basket handle, scanning the crowd - this way, or that? With a slight turn and twist she weaved around a burley man carrying a sack of potatoes, ducking out of the way of a woman balancing a large jug of wine on her hip. She swept her way around the busy farmers restocking their tables. Carts filled to the brim with ripe pumpkins pulled in and out of little alleyways, while the old empty carts were taken for restocking. She stepped to the side of a pile of dung, pressing herself against the walls of the alley as two women bustled past in the crowd — one carrying an overflowing basket of lettuces, the other trailing behind with a basket of peas ready to be shelled.
A man emerged from the corner of her eye, whacking fresh fish down on the table in front of him - salted with their scales still shiny and iridescent from the catch. She darted to the near right side of the Platz, attempting to recall the amounts of items she needed.
Perhaps it was ‘one bunch of celery’....or was it ‘one bunch of lettuce’?
She sighed. The sun was still beating down strong, warming her skin but dizzying her mind.
With the basket in her hand still empty, she pursed her lips and tried as she might to remember the items her mother had repeated to her that morning. Moving a wisp of light brown hair behind her ear that had blown in front of her nose, she could remember the trails of ‘…don’t forget two bunches of celery, for supper this evening.’
A soft tinging moved through the square, like a snake through long grass. It started with a few clinks, then became louder and louder. She peered up as to notice the melody long before anyone in the square had a chance. It echoed from the glockenspiel on the cathedral, playing a fragment of what she assumed to be a larger piece, for it was as beautiful as the water glimmering in the sunlight. A tune so haunting it made her heart beat irregularly for a moment.
She flung the basket around her elbow and walked around the periphery of the square. The sound leading her like a piper. Her blue eyes focused and pierced through anyone who got in her way. They moved from her path, recoiling from her expression.
She had a gentle face, delicate and petite with soft cheeks and small wisps of light brown hair that blew on the skin like reeds on a river bank. Her hair fell straight down her back in a loose braid, tied at the end with a ratty piece of old ribbon. She’d found it one day in her room when looking for the mice that had chewed through half of her old skirts. It had fallen down the back of her chest with the same mouse-worn holes in it. In an instant, she picked it up and wove it around itself to form a little rope, which she imagined didn’t then look too ratty or discarded, but rather beautiful. It was the only piece of ribbon that she owned, and it was the same blue as her skirts - almost the same blue as her eyes. Her cheeks were always a little flushed with a rosy hue, drawing attention to her remarkably smooth and iridescent skin.
The tune became louder as she found herself away from the bustle of the square, at the steps of the Cathedral. The door before her was larger than anything she had seen before. Higher than the tallest house she could imagine. The wood carved and woven with iron, with a spun iron handle to secure it shut. She moved her hand to it, feeling the cold of the iron against her flushed skin. With one swift move she pushed down, and spun herself inside.
The ringing of the bells was muffled within the stone walls. She stepped forward into the little alcove before the grandeur of the cathedral began. A loud click and shudder echoed as the door fell on its hinge. She startled, checking behind her, then realising the eerie silence within.
Light fell from the windows, casting a colourful shadow across the stone floors. The sun was overhead and not at the right angle for the rose windows to take full effect. Most of the hall was dark, dimly lit by a few candles hanging in the centre. She made one hesitant step inward. The sound of her soft shoe against the stone echoed out to every corner. There was something about this time of day - where inside one feels like they are in the shadow of the world, in a world of their own.
Her ears pricked up for a moment as she noticed beneath the eerie echo of her own footsteps was the same faint melody, but more musical in quality.
She skimmed one side to the next, scanning for the source. The faint melody continued, moving through the walls.
The basket swung in the crook her arms as she continued onward. Her skirts flailed behind her as she walked toward the music, like a bride led by nothing more than a phantom flute. It lead her to the right-hand end of the cathedral, where only one small door appeared.
The melody became strongest when she placed her hand and ear to the wall, feeling its gentle pulse. Looking to her right, a small wrought iron handle. She slid her hand down to the handle, and without thinking too much about it, pushed down hard in one swift movement to crack it open.
Inside sat a man, with a slightly crooked nose, deep set eyes, pale skin and prominent cheekbones, playing on a small, portable organ. It was wooden with small pipes sticking out the top and small wooden keys. His lips puckered as he concentrated on each line, as if evaluating his own work.
So focused was his gaze that he did not recognise her standing by the door.
“W-” she started, not wanting to interrupt the beauty of each note, “What is this song?”
“A canon,” he said in short, “D minor”
His eyes kept to his sheet, watching each note rise and fall on the paper.
She moved closer. The paper was so worn it frayed at the edges and was fragmented throughout, as if someone had spent many a night scrawling over and over, removing and adding, with no randomness but with precision.
She could not resist the temptation to reach her hand out and touch the paper. Her fingers touched the parchment as gentle as a feather.
“Would you like to play?” He asked, eyes locked on the sheet that lingered on her fingertip.
She looked down at him.
He gestured to the end of the bench with no care if she did or did not sit.
Gathering her skirts and petticoat she sat herself down at the end of the bench, watching his fingers glide up and down the keys.
“Put your fingers across the keys at the end, leaving a gap in the middle,” he spoke while continuing the melody.
“Press the second left finger down, then your third finger down.”
Her fingers managed to glide across the keys perfectly without a single fault.
“Then skip one and use your last finger to push down, then do the opposite with the other hand.”
With narrow eyes as she focused the rhythm of her hands became easy to remember. Each repetition cemented the instructions in her head, and the satisfaction of the melody both surprised and delighted her.
He peered over for a second and then began to play some different notes.
She turned her head, at the sudden change, to which he gave a gentle nod to keep going. She turned back to her keys, keeping the same tempo.
He played a melody so layered and light that she began to see snowflakes dancing in the crisp winter air. Goosebumps peppered her skin. Her arms became weak with the intoxication of this new song. The melody opened up, sparkling in the sky and blossomed into grandeur. Her heart fluttered. The sounds built and built. It was slow at first, but before long the chamber was filled with the music that she resolved could only be equated to angels. She imagined their wings fluttering around her as if floating on the notes. Her eyes became clouded with light. Nothing else. All the while, the music continued to play.
A sharp piercing noise flew through her ears, like a pinch inside her head. She flinched but then began to hear something. Sounds that were light, and heavy, but balanced. Something that she could only try to imagine would be like a big and little lute. Perhaps even the sound of a brighter pan-flute. Sounds that had no parallel to anything she had heard before. The more she tried to think, and dissect the sound, the more the pressure in her head magnified.
‘Perhaps’ the thought appeared, ‘that I am hearing what he hears.’
In one moment the music stopped.
She looked at her hands. They were still playing the keys as though under a spell. He had stopped to scrawl a few more notes in the half-blank piece of paper.
“Why are you stopped?” She asked, eyes wide.
“I am finished.”
Putting the last paper on top while it dried, he got up from the bench and turned to leave the room.
She sat there. Hands shaking. Breath rapid. The bumps on her skin only beginning to fade. She heard his footsteps in the main part of the cathedral, heading towards the door.
Gathering herself she rushed out of the room, intercepting him in the choir. Wanting to run she managed to stop herself, blurting out only “W-w-” but she could not say a word.
The door clicked shut, echoing in the chamber.
The cathedral was empty. Nothing but the sound of her own breath and the drip of a distant water drop.
She supposed for a moment that perhaps in chapel one day, the organist would play a clumsy version of it, and she would be transported back. Although like in life, what we suppose to happen, never does.
The room was dark. Dimly lit by a single candle almost melted down to a nub. Its wax spilled across the wooden desk — each droplet illuminated by the flickering light.
His rough hands with bulbous joints shuffled the papers into a neat stack. Each scrawl and line deliberate and beautiful. In the crevice of the drawer at the back of the desk was a box. A simple and plain box made from light wood, with a simple and small iron keyhole,
Rubbing his nose, he placed the papers neatly stacked into the box, pushing them down slightly to stop the bulging, and with a smile, he sealed it shut.
“Herr Reichstadt” she called out in the street. Although it wasn’t really a street, more of a dirt path dotted with wooden houses. The summer sun still beating down. The grass green and flowers blooming.
The man stopped only when she had caught up with him and yanked on his sleeve.
“Herr Reichstadt, what’s going on?”
"Fire down the other end of town,” he pulled away gruffly to follow the rest of the men carrying water pales toward the flames.
A lurch in her stomach twisted and turned. Fires happened often when the flames of hell struck the earth, or a hearth blazed out of control, but not like this. Not with half the town helping to put it out.
Without a second thought she ran as fast as she could, pulling her skirts up, back to the house.
“Mama,” she called out at the door, “Mama what do you see?”
She was sitting by the hearth in a trance. Seeing her, she ran to her, dropping to her feet and holding her mother’s hand.
“What do you see Mama?”
“I see a man, alive, but distraught. Everything he has is burned. The roof, the ceiling, the walls…”
She rubbed over her knuckles as her mother stared blankly into space.
“What else,” she whispered.
“Parchments…bits and pieces all burned….but there are others…”
She looked into her eyes, that widened almost with fear. Her black coiled hair sticking out of her wimple bounced as she trembled.
“What is it?”
“A box…a small box…and a man with stiff clothes and round eye glasses and black face hair. He has found the parchments…”
She clung to her head as if in terrible pain. She raised on her heels and put her arms around her mother, stroking her head in comfort.
They stayed for a brief moment before she finally spoke, “That music…those notes you told me about at the cathedral…I heard them.”
Her eyes widened, “Did they sound as I heard them? As angels fluttering wings and pounding hearts?”
She nodded, “I’m afraid that’s all for today.”
© Claudia Merrill 2019