The instruments are uncased, all but one.
A cello remains, alive but asleep, cool in the dark of the silent house.
It waits familiar fingers, the ones it has learned to obey, to lift it out, extend the spike,
Make it speak and sing.
An ancient servant passed from house to house,
The cello’s resigned to the long succession of hands.
It hears in the gardens cicadas rub their wings,
And knows it plays better than them.

In courtyard and field cicadas call,
Persistent, thoughtful, tired or loud,
They know without thought that what they seek is love.

This is what there is;
Noble houses, white roads,
A parched field, painted by heat in bronze and gold,
Fringed and framed by cypress trees;
An implacable sun,
A spent volcano like a maiden’s breast;
Musicians resting in the grateful shade.

But where is the cellist? Where are the birds?
Where do the animals drink?
What would be their thoughts, these famished trees, if trees should think?
How does the cricket elude us, even as it sings?

When we are children, why do we seek the cricket out?
And when we are grown, why have we given up?
When does the cricket sleep?
Does the cricket know when it mates
That song must be bequeathed?

This land was stone and clay, and fever, and marsh.
Once there were midwives wrenching the stones from clay,
And here is the land those hands bequeathed,
This land where music rings from stones,
Where once were partisans,
Where once the soldiers dreamed of home.
They’re all gone now, the ones
Who gathered sticks, and cleaned their guns,
And sang the fireside songs.

A clarinet plays in an inner room;
Outside, a thrush replies.
The strings are tuning up, their discord like a misspent youth
Before the laurels of age.
A cello speaks for the one that sleeps in its case,
The one that cannot speak for itself
Without the maestro’s hands.

We eat, we drink, we laugh,
But someone’s away
There’s someone who ought to be here,
(The presence of an absence
The absence of a presence)
Beneath our laughter, fear.

Hurrying past, compelled by the breeze, a butterfly.

Why do you sleep so much? the paper demands of the scribe.
‘You’re old,’ says the sun, ‘your music has slowed,
You save your allegros for when you need them most,
There’s rest, and rest, between your phrases now.’

I have never lived in a hurry,
Although compelled by the breeze, although Erato pins me down,
The oldest of my lovers, and of all my loves the last.

Wasps and cicadas drown in the pool; it’s better than dying of thirst.
Music is better than silence, silence is better than noise.
The wind is the breath of the world, the world is the lung of the wind,

The flute is the breath of the soul.

The wind enquires of the sun ‘Which of us two dries the walnuts more?’
The wind is empty-handed, the wind has nothing to bring.
It knows that the hillsides are eager for rain.
At dawn there is smoke in place of cloud,
At night the valleys are sleepless, awake for fear of flame.

And someone else is sleepless.
She’s restless at night, she’s mocked
By dreams of what she might have done,
She kicks her legs and groans.  ‘I’ve wasted my life.
I prick your heart with tiny wounds. I don’t know why.
Someone should make me stop.’

I’ll be alright, he’s travelled away to a lyric land,
Beyond the reach of thorn, and when he returns
She’ll turn off the lights, light the candles, open the wine,
Throw back the covers, take off her dress. 

It’s wise to leave her often
To have her love him more.

‘And why’ asks the pen, ‘do you write like this, out in the sun,
Waiting for music to start?

Sweet friend, well that’s what pens are for,
I’m running you down for the sake of your death,
As the cello murders the string, as the oboe murders the reed,
All for the sake of the vanishing song.

‘I’d rather be brimming with ink’ says the pen;
‘Why should I care for your words?

‘This is the deal, this is your fate, the pen must die so I give birth to words.
You’re the trooper that the Marshall throws away.
Die bravely if you can,
For words must be unearthed, the moments must be caught.’

‘Well, use me if you must; you’re no more free than me.’

Three grey donkeys roll in dust, three lemons hang on a black branch;
A sudden passage of doves, a sudden raid of swallows;
The flautist swipes at a fly; he plays with his fingers, his arms, his hands,
His legs, his feet.  His hips are in dance, his spirit dissolves in the notes, he is his fingers leaping.
He is his hands, he is his legs, he is his feet, he is the music that he makes,
And he is made by music in return.   So, what is the flautist without a flute?
A wandless wizard, with embarrassed hands.  

Why this unquenchable thirst for wine?
Wine is the brother of blood.

Two cats creep between the chairs, another leaps from the step,
What is this music to them, so rapt in their parallel lives?
It’s common knowledge, everyone knows,
Cats love flutes, and violins.

And as for me, my wheels must spin in the dirt of the road,
This white road made of dust,
This white road packed with stone.

These are my final years, no doubt, but still  my wheels must spin,
I’m raising dust as I always did, I’m spinning my wheels on the white road,
Throwing up dirt in my own eyes while shaded pigeons coo in trees
And the wasps drown, and old fools are in love once more,
And the French horn speaks to the old stone wall.
We are old fools all, falling in love at the drop of a hat, falling in love too soon,
Or falling in love too late, or failing to love at all.

Old fools suffer fools gladly; they have to put up with themselves.
The E string slips on the violin, the body rebels, the spirit belongs with those birds,
Those buzzards that mew as they lift on the wind
Above the burned-out land.

Where are my wings, O World, what have you done with my wings?

I gave you hands and a soul, so you might write of the longing for wings,
And when your hands have gone, perhaps your words remain.
There’s nothing remaining of wings, that leave no script in the sky.

Forgive me World, you’re right of course, but all the same,
I’d rather hurl out on the wind.

And who are you to question me? Where were you when I was made?

I was unassembled, that’s all, and now I’ve grown, and I’ve left your hearth,
And here I am in the wild world where E strings slip,
And wheels spin round in the white dust, and a woman’s eyes
Collide with mine, and unspecific longing grips my throat, and
Buzzards wheel, and wasps drown, and everyone waits
For wounded hearts to heal, and a cello waits in its case,
And knows it cannot sing. 

‘Maestro, I’m waiting for you. When will you lift me out?

We too, we are waiting,’ the women cry,
‘We are closed in the case of this terrible fear.
‘When will you lift us out?’

In Città della Pieve the drummers drum,
The faithful sip the blood of God,
The flautist blows in the wings.
A woman touches my arm,
A woman with balm in her hands.

A cricket lands on the white page, the land is at prayer,
Forced to its knees by nostalgia for rain. 
Behind the hill the clouds rise up,
Fluffed out with promise, that no-one believes.

Don’t hang your happiness on love, unless it can’t be helped,
Unless you’re made that way,
But in the end you’re used to being expelled,
You walk the fence,
You get back in by another gate,
You find the tree and eat the fruit again.

The cello waits in its case, everyone’s asking for news.
There’s music each night in the cricketsong courts.
They play each night for one who can’t be there,
They play as if he were.
Everyone’s asking, ‘When will the cellist return?’

There’s the stump of a tower on a distant hill, another atop that mound.
The guitar begins, alone with me in my room.
Heart pierced through by five swords,
It longs for better picado, more skilful hands than mine.
I’m the poor lover, between the sheets with a girl whose faery prince has gone,
Who closes her eyes and conjures him up, his mouth, his eyes, his hands.
Sweet guitar, forgive my weak embrace.

Beyond the hill the thunder growls. We fear the rain’s for someone else.
A tiny lizard skitters on flags; there’s water left in a bowl,
Weighted down with a stone.

These stones that weight you down, when will you throw them away?
You’ve carried those stones too long.
The crickets are tired of their simple song;
When will the cellist return?

The thirst of the earth flies up, it seeds the clouds with prayer,
The clouds that gather one by one. 
The eyes of the sun turn blind.
The sun attempts to peel the clouds aside.

Tyrant sun, get back, you’ve ruled this land too long.

We are out in the road when the wellhead breaks, with
First one drop to raise a puff of dust, then spreads out to a stain.
Thunder roars on the far hill, lightning stutters and snaps,
Runnels and ditches are suddenly full, the
Torrent pell-mell in the run of the road.

We go to the windows, open the doors, extinguish  the fans.
On roof and road the hailstones clatter and bounce.
Small blue flowers wake to life in the grass.

The cellist returns in the wake of the rain,
Maestro, maestro, it’s you.
We kept the music alive.
We played as if you were here.

His women surround him,
This battered soldier returned from wars
He never intended to fight,
Conscripted by time,
Conscripted by Fate,
Conscripted by blood,
Restored at last by love.

The music resumes.
The cello awaits him, tired as he is,
Shaken and pale, but eager to live,
Like the valley that thirsted for rain,
Like the blackbird that sang from the cypress at dawn,
Like the greening grass, and the brave blue mallow,
Returning to life in the weft of the lawn.

Louis de Bernières, 2022


Copyright (c) Louis de Bernieres 2022, permission granted by the author.