by Simon Pan
On days when I came home crying, my grandmother was always there with her song.
It was a tune friendly and old as the roads that crossed Mazael: the sort you shared while you watched the land roll away on horseback, or sitting at a moonlit fireside among familiar faces. I would lean against my grandmother on our rickety porch and breathe in her scent as she sang to the street.
Magic lay in that song, the notes so delicate you could tell a story about each one. As the beginning strands of music twined together, I would be transported to a place that let me forget the ache in my chest, a city of an entirely different skin than our Lenniel. A place of worn streets and thatched roofs wrapped in the smell of woodsmoke and fresh ale. A sunset, a fire, the sky on fire and the streets ablaze with torchlight.
“This is our song, dear,” she would say as she smiled down at me. “Don’t listen to the other children. We will always have our home with us…” Her fingers would press against my chest just above my heart. Somehow she knew the exact place where her spell took root. “Here.”
Even after so many years, that is how I think of home. Sitting there on that porch with the wind stealing my tears and carrying away the sound of magic.
In my earliest years I would go with my grandmother to the town centre in Lenniel and stand before the pillars of the Arlanari, the grand concert hall. There I would watch her set down her woven basket and sing to the busy streets. Once in a while a passerby would deposit a few coins into the basket and I would put on a shy smile for them.
That changed the day I saw a few older boys cross the street, pointing at us and giggling. The wind carried their whispers over as they neared.
“Look at them. Beady eyes, noses all smushed.”
“Look like puppets.”
After that, I stood on the opposite side of the street but even then I could feel the heat in my cheeks. One night, as we returned home, I finally blurted out what was on my mind.
“Why do the people look at you like that?”
“Look at me like what, dear?”
I bit my lip. I couldn’t stop staring at my hands as I walked, the olive-colour that seemed somehow like a stain in a sea of white.
“Like you’re an animal.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say,” she said, though her laugh rang cold and weak. “Your father would let you hear it if he were here.”
I fell silent at the mention of my father. It had been his idea for me to grow up in Lenniel. I’d never known him or my mother. They’d given me to my grandmother the year after I’d been born and left to wander the wild like all the other Veleri, singing their songs at roadsides and taverns, drinking with thieves.
There was an old saying among the Wandering Folk that went something like this: follow your voice and you will find your way home. A silly thing to say for a people whose city now lay in ruins. Whenever I thought about why my parents left me, I imagined them wandering forever, in search of a place that had no name.
We had our first fight not long after I started school.
I was standing at my grandmother’s side as she stood preparing the evening meal in the kitchen. The scent of the sour spices and the bitter fumes wafting down from the stew pot made my eyes water.
“Can’t I get a real instrument?”
She looked down from where she was chopping a thick piece of gnarled ellanroot. “What’s wrong with singing, dear?”
“I want a lanthra.” I crossed my arms and stuck my chin out in defiance. “I’m tired of singing. Everyone else in music class has an instrument.”
“I don’t know if that’s possible,” my grandmother said. Her dark eyes shone with sadness. “Lanthras are expensive.”
“You say that about everything. Clothes are expensive, food is expensive, a roof is expensive.” I jabbed my finger in the air to punctuate my points. “When will we live like real people?”
“And what makes us not ‘real people’?” She knelt and took my face in her hands. I twisted but she held strong, forcing me to meet her gaze.
“Do we not have a place in the world as much as anyone else?”
“Real people have money.” I was shouting. I didn’t care. “Real people don’t beg, real people—”
“We don’t beg.” She jerked back as if stung, releasing me. Pain creased the lines at the edges of her eyes. “We earn every coin we get. Don’t say silly things like that.” She rose with a groan and stared down at her cutting board. Her eyes narrowed slightly and she made grasping motions with her hands, as if she could pull whatever she was looking for out of the air. “Now, could you get me that… thing you use to stir?”
I should’ve seen it then, should’ve realized, but I was too bitter.
I bit my lip and went to fetch the ladle from a cupboard. I knew there was no point to this conversation. Grandmother would never understand— she was Veleri down to her bones after all.
Kade, one of the boys from school, invited me over for Snowtide one year.
His parents were on the Merchant’s Council so I wasn’t surprised that they lived in one of the towering manors that sat on the hillside, looking out over the rest of the city. Even so, the view stole my breath as I stared out of the tall windows of the common room. The howling wind appeared as pale threads carrying heavy drifts of snow. Through the sea of white, I could just make out the silhouettes of slanted roofs in the dark and golden light spilling from windows.
I turned and found Kade approaching with a grin, a platter of sugared biscuits in hand. A small procession of boys and girls in tailored white shirts and dresses trailed him. Together with their jewelry glittering in the light of the candelabras and their creamy skin, they looked like a group of snowflakes brushed down from the sky.
“These ones won’t believe me.” He gestured behind him with a snort and turned back to me with an expectant expression. “The Veleri summon demons with their songs, don’t they? That’s how Velerin fell.”
“The City of Fire did not fall because of demons.” The girl at his shoulder threw up her hands and raised her eyes to the distant ceiling. “They just lost the war.”
“Then how do you explain the magic? Everyone knows if you hear a Veleri song, you start seeing things.”
Mutters of assent echoed throughout the room. In the past five years since I’d known Kade, I’d never seen him so animated. All eyes were fixed on him and the room seemed to revolve around him. Tall, with a shock of golden hair, this child of wealthy Lennielith merchants. I felt the stab of jealousy deep in my gut.
“Well…” I glanced between Kade and the girl. “Only the best can manage the demons, but—”
Kade spun so fast the biscuits on his platter nearly spilled. “See? I told you!”
The girl squinted at me. “Really?”
“Of course.” I thought back to the stories I’d heard from school. “It takes a long time to prepare and there’s a lot of blood, but yes.”
“Your grandmother can do it, right?” Kade, with that eager grin again.
I blinked. “She… has trouble remembering the spells these days.”
Kade clapped me on the back, then handed me a biscuit and slipped away. I watched for a moment as his procession followed him off before turning back to the window.
For a long while I stood there, searching. This time I couldn’t resolve anything beyond a strange boy painted on the glass. Cropped black hair, pinhole eyes staring back above a flat nose. The type of thing that summoned demons. I spent the rest of the night like that, frozen in contemplation.
I came home to find my grandmother sitting on the steps alone in the cold. Snow lay wrapped around her shoulders, a scarf of frost glittering in the light. She looked up as I approached and her face brightened like a child’s given candy.
“Did you have fun, dear?”
I brushed past her without a word, through the hallway, and slammed my bedroom door closed behind me. I noticed for the first time how foul my wool blankets smelled, how harsh the floorboards were beneath my back, how sharp the heavy chill that set my teeth chattering felt. Maybe that was why I couldn’t fall asleep that night. Or maybe it was the image burned into my mind of a wrinkled woman sitting on wooden steps alone in a pool of torchlight, waiting and waiting. The look that had been frozen on her face.
The sadness in her eyes and the heavy curl of her spine, a jagged thing like a splintered sheet of ice.
I returned from Kade’s one night to find my grandmother seated alone at the stained table in our kitchen. Her head snapped up as I entered and the lines of her face relaxed. A pot of stew steamed on the table, the pungent smell nearly suffocating.
I stared at the chunks of ellanroot and wyrwand stalks floating in the watery stew. A Veleri dish, ingredients pulled from the wilds.
“Can’t you make normal food?”
“You’ve never had trouble with my cooking before.” She pursed her lips. I walked around to the cupboard to retrieve my bowl but her sharp voice cut me off. “You won’t need that, dear. I-I’ve already eaten. Just use the pot.”
My grandmother always waited. Suspicion crept into me. I went to the cabinet where we stored our food and pulled it open. The lingering scent of old spices and raw vegetables welcomed me, but the cabinet held nothing beyond a few specks of soil. For a moment I stared, the pieces aligning themselves in my head. It was the last day of Lorning. My grandmother must have forgotten to go to the market again. She had used what was left to cook a meal— enough for one person.
I forced myself back to the table, back into the seat. A painful, tearing sensation wormed its way through my chest, as if the two halves of me were being pulled apart. A part that yearned for something I would never have and a part that feared losing what I had never truly known.
“I can make something else next—”
“No. Just… it’s fine, okay? It’s fine.”
The stew burned my tongue as I wolfed it down and I nearly choked. I forced myself to slow after that, even though I knew it had not been food that had caught in my throat.
We sat together as we always did on the rickety porch. I stared up at the dusk sky and the slash of orange clouds. But there was no song, no spell to carry me up into those fiery wings. I could see my grandmother from the corner of my eye, a furrow between her brows. She mouthed words over and over but whenever she tried to sing her voice faltered.
“Do you remember how it goes, Girilin?”
I stiffened and looked away. It wasn’t the first time she’d forgotten my name. “Don’t call me that.”
“Why? It’s your name.”
“It’s not my name.”
“I know you don’t like it, but it’s a Veleri name.” Her face softened. The hurt lay etched into the worn lines of her face. “I just want you to be happy, child. Is it so hard to be happy in your own skin?”
“Stop saying that. We’re living in Lenniel, with real people in a real city. We’re Lennielith, not Veleri, so stop trying to sing that stupid song.”
I regretted the words as soon as they left my mouth and felt the shame sting deeper when my grandmother’s voice fell to a hush.
“The music is who we are.”
The music won’t fix you, I wanted to say. “But I don’t want it to be.”
“Oh, child.” She tilted her face and a wry smile twisted her shriveled lips. “In the end, we will all just be songs.”
Years would pass before I began to understand what she meant.
Near the end of my twelfth year at school, I started staying late to practice. The Guild’s Test was coming in a few months, when the masters at the Musician’s Guild in Farlyth would host a concert night at the Arlanari. Everyone knew that if you managed to impress them you could win an offer to the Guild. It was all I could think about.
One day, Kade stayed to watch me practice. I sat at our school’s old lanthra, testing the strings one by one, running my hands over the polished black wood of the frame. There was a beauty to the instrument that I could never get over. A certain way it sat tucked between my knees as it sang that always seemed perfect. But no sooner had I begun to play than a choked laugh pierced the music and I broke off, startled. I looked up to find Kade shaking his head in disbelief.
“You’re not going to play that, are you?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
Kade made a face. “You can’t waste a lanthra on a stupid folk tune. You’ll look like an idiot.”
I frowned. “What are you going to—”
“Wyrwand’s Bloom,” Kade said with a proud smile, as if he had been waiting for the question. “Only the best can play it. It’s famous in the courts of Thae Lannor.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
He rolled his eyes and tossed me a book that had been sitting on the windowsill.
“That’s got all the classics. You can pick a song from there.”
After Kade left, I flipped through the book. The names were all unfamiliar to me and the dizzying scatter of notes was daunting. But I knew Kade was right— the judges would be masters of their craft and most of the audience would be powerful folk.
In the end I chose a song called Lunocivo. It was composed by Alanrae Veridas, one of the greatest composers of our time and a man whose name I could barely pronounce, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was from the glittering city of Lodin Vard, not some forgotten tribe without a home. His name carried strength and wealth and all the things that came with them.
I woke one night to a strange keening. At first I thought it was the wind, but glancing out the window I saw that the trees along the street stood still in the dark. So I pushed myself up and padded out to the hallway.
The door hung ajar. Through the crack I could see my grandmother sitting on the porch, her shoulders hunched and her eyes staring off into nowhere. The moonlight spilled across her, etching the lines of her face in silver as she worked her jaw. Her voice escaped wafer-thin and tremulous. There were words but they came fragmented, notes that echoed in the wrong places. A broken melody. I didn’t know why, but I felt relieved.
The wood groaned beneath my feet as I slid out onto the porch. She didn’t turn to me, though silence claimed her voice.
“Come on,” I said, tugging on her arm. “Let’s go back to bed.”
She glanced up and peered into my face, as if noticing me for the first time. “Do you feel it, Arlin? That little song, our home?”
I tugged again, not bothering to tell her that Arlin and my mother had abandoned us, that home was a lie. She didn’t budge.
“Stop treating me like a child,” she snapped. I stumbled back in surprise. I’d never heard her speak like that. “Please, Arlin, just listen to me this one time. That boy needs the road. I need the road. If you leave him behind, I’ll take care of him, but our people were never meant to stay in the same place for so long.” Her withered hand shot out to grab me by the wrist. I stifled a cry as her cracked nails dug in. “Promise me you’ll take him with you. Promise me you’ll teach him what it means to be Veleri.”
“I promise,” I said between gritted teeth.
She watched me for a time through narrowed eyes, searching for the lie. At last she nodded and let me lead her back into the house.
Lunocivo was the hardest song I’d ever tried to learn. It didn’t help that sleep escaped me no matter how hard I hunted for it, because I had grown used to standing watch over my bedridden grandmother most nights. Bitterness together with weariness do not blend for a pretty song.
I sat in my school’s basement with my teeth clenched, plucking away at the strings of the lanthra at a snail’s pace. My teacher, Bolas, stood at my shoulder, driving me on. He was a stern man, tall and sharp, with an angular face that always felt as if I were staring at someone cut from stone rather than flesh.
“Flat!” Bolas slapped his switch across my head. “You’re sharp. Focus, boy. Do you want the Masters to think you’re an idiot?”
I bit my lip so hard the taste of blood flooded my mouth. Again and again I played through the line, making sure the pieces fit together. At last my fingers came to a stop and I stared at the strings. The hiss of air betrayed the switch but I absorbed the sting without reaction.
“Sir, why do people like this song?”
“I…” I picked my words carefully. “I just think the best music is the kind that makes us feel.”
“And does Lunocivo not make you feel?”
“I think it sounds a little dry. The melody runs so fast and senselessly.”
Bolas snorted as if I were the biggest fool he’d ever taught. “This is one of the greatest pieces of our time, boy. See how this section breathes, listen to the mystery hidden in the chorus!”
I swallowed my protest and gave a nod before resuming. The notes sounded hollow and dead to me, but I gritted my teeth and pressed on. Lunocivo was a masterpiece for a reason. I just hadn’t acquired the taste yet. I wouldn’t be able to recognize true art until I became a master myself. Perhaps one day I would understand, if I managed to join the Musician’s Guild.
My grandmother lay in bed, her eyes clouded as she stared into the light of the flickering candle on the windowsill. They remained unfocused even when I stepped into the room and my shadow fell over her.
For a moment my gaze lingered on her face and I felt old emotions well up within me. A woman alone in the cold, a pot of stew, a song. A message bubbled at my lips but the person I needed to hear it was no longer here, no longer knew my name. Something searing and bitter burned me as I tore my eyes away.
“I won’t be back tomorrow night.”
I stared at my reflection in the window and smoothed back my hair. “I’m going to perform at the Arlanari.”
“Leaving.” The way her lips drew downwards made something deep in my chest twist. “Can we come with you, son?”
“No.” I nearly spat the word.
“Why not? The fire in the streets… the fire in the sky… Can’t we go home together? I want to see it again.”
“Just…” I gave a heavy sigh. The time for words had long since passed between us. “Bolas said he’ll look after you while I’m gone.”
She didn’t reply. Her hand quested out, dangerously close to the candle. With a spike of alarm I shot over and batted her hand away. She didn’t seem to notice but there was an insistence in her eyes that frightened me.
I made to leave, then hesitated. Two steps took me back to the windowsill and I snuffed out the candle with a breath. The room in total darkness, I strode off and left without another glance.
I stood backstage, flexing my clammy fingers. The cloying scent of a dozen different mixing perfumes almost made me choke. I’d watched the other youths slip in and out of the room as the night wore on, flashes of glittering gemstones over dresses and crisp suits. I knew that they watched me too, taking in the rumpled cream-coloured shirt I’d borrowed from Kade. I saw the moment they dismissed me from the straightening of their shoulders and the proud tilt of their chins.
Tonight. The night I’d dreamed of for years. I’d done everything I could to prepare and now all that lay ahead was to perform. If successful, I could win my path into the Musician’s College in Farlyth.
I could earn my way into a real life.
When I stepped onto the stage, a low muttering broke out across the room. I could feel a thousand gazes weighing me as I sat on the stool and turned to face them. Seated on a raised platform above the crowd were the five black-clad Masters of the Guild. The knot in my stomach twisted as my gaze landed on them. I was glad for the lights, dimming away their silhouettes beneath the brightness.
The muttering grew as I removed my school’s lanthra from its case. I struck a chord, turned the pegs, tried to fall back to familiar memories. I had practiced until my fingers bled and my head spun and the long-dead echoes of notes rang in my ears. Lunocivo’s melody was burned into my mind fiercer than the memory of my own name.
I finished warming up and raised my head. One, two deep breaths. I wiped my hands on my shirt. And then something happened that changed me forever. At that moment, my eyes fell upon an ancient woman seated in the far right corner.
I’d told Bolas not to bring her. Why was she here? I saw my teacher sitting beside her amidst a field of empty seats. My cheeks burned and my hands began to tremble. Bolas must have seen something in my face because he gave me a nod.
My head snapped towards the source of the sound. There was a bustle of movement but whoever had said the slur sat too far back for me to make them out. Still, I felt my heart hammer against my chest and my fingers pause over the lanthra. A memory came to me then, clear and sharp. Many memories. An entire life flashing before me, and I realized then that this would be the only chance I would ever get.
So I played. Seated on the stage, I strummed a chord and let the notes taste the air. I wasn’t thinking. When you are with someone you love, the world spins by and thought dissolves into shades of colour. Slowly my fingers grew relaxed as they danced across the strings. I reached for the pent breath in my chest, called upon hours and hours of practice.
It wasn’t Lunocivo. The song that bled into the air wasn’t sharp and mysterious, whispering of places far away and a life untamed. It was something that smelled and tasted of home. It was what the moon said as it blinked into the sky, making sure the nights never grew too dark. It was a grandmother’s love and the ache of a name forgotten.
The muttering had ceased completely and in the void my music flowed through. I swayed, let my body bend into the song. I carved out all the bitter pieces from the hollow pit inside me and poured myself into the air. I let the room see me, all of me.
Gentle at first and then fiercer, I let my voice twine with that of the lanthra and we became two friends in conversation. Together we pulsed as one heartbeat, moving life into a story that couldn’t be put to words. My voice sang a waterfall of notes that cascaded over the ice of the lanthra’s harmony. Fighting, yielding, each note dancing with its pair, intimate and silver-bright when they joined together.
I knew the moment my spell was complete when I left the room. The white walls of the auditorium faded to usher in shadow. I was playing around a bonfire and the moon hung fierce and bright in the sky. Leaves rustled and somewhere far off waves rumbled, a thousand distant harmonies joining my song.
The chorus crashed over us and the fire leapt with it, hungry, spreading out to engulf the world. And then I saw it. Glimmering streets in a place I had never known and somehow the name was on my tongue, waiting like an old secret I’d forgotten. I was returning from a long wander, my limbs aching, my mind aching, but there was a tune to welcome me and friendly faces in this city of light that I knew no longer existed in the world.
The song never stayed in one place. Sometimes quiet and sad, then soaring and so full of joy my chest ached with its weight. Even as I played I lost track of time. The only thing I was certain of was that I wished to stay there forever, together with the smell of smoke and a brightness in my heart I knew came only fleetingly.
But it did end. The legato notes swept upwards, a gathering of wings in the night sky, building up into a high crescendo. They hung there, growing brighter and brighter beneath the moonlight. Then they sailed off one by one, and when the last scrap of light faded beyond the horizon I was back in the auditorium.
When I finished, I looked out over the crowd. I knew what they were thinking. It was written across their pale faces and their stiff postures. In the space of that held breath, I knew I had lost my only chance, but I didn’t care. I looked out across the field of frozen statues. I wasn’t searching for nods of approval or teary-eyed stares. Just one, one wrinkled face in a grubby apron smiling up from her seat.
Then it happened.
The applause was a crack of thunder that I will never forget. From nowhere it began until the room was echoing with the sound of a thousand voices and clapping hands. People sagged in their seats, released from my spell. I saw men and women turn to each other and the silver gleam of tears cascading down their faces.
But the truth was that none of it registered. At that moment I found my grandmother. She wore a moth-eaten, quilted sweater beneath a stained apron. Her eyes shone clear and bright as sun-kissed snow.
She mouthed a word. The thundering applause drowned out her voice but I read it from her lips anyway. A name. When it struck me, I buried my face into my hands and broke down into tears at last.
Moments come and go. Songs carry these moments.
Before I became the Songstrider, before you ever heard one of my songs at a concert hall or at a fireside, I was my grandmother’s Ysarin and a boy of the Veleri. If you are to understand me or ever hope to learn the stories woven into my songs, you must first look to my grandmother. Never forget where I came from. Sometimes even I almost forget, and on those days I play my grandmother’s song to remind myself.
She taught me that learning a song and breathing life into one are two entirely different things. The former is a corpse, the latter pulses with its own heartbeat built upon memories. The latter is a story.
The latter is home.
About the Author
Simon Pan is a Canadian writer of speculative fiction and an undergraduate student in medical sciences. When not writing or studying, he is busy staying active or collecting overdue library fines. In 2021, he was a recipient of the Lions Mountain Literary Scholarship for Young Writers and his work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Cast of Wonders. You can find him on Twitter @_SimonPan.
About the Narrator
Karlo Yeager Rodríguez was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but now lives near Baltimore with his spouse, a grumpy dragon, and one odd dog. His writing has appeared in places like Nature, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and is forthcoming in Speculative Fiction for Dreamers: A Latinx Anthology. He’s also on Podside Picnic, where he discusses his genre (mis)education with his co-host, Pete.