Flash Fiction: Windpipes (747 words)

Ineli sat on the stone bench, legs bent right up to her chest so that her feet disappeared into her skirt and her whole body felt like a sturdy knot. On either side of her, a line of white stone pillars held up absolutely nothing, pointed straight up into a blue sky. The sun touched her shoulders, dripped warmth down her back. A little beyond the pillars, square walls held back the rest of the city. Eyes shut, Ineli rested her head on her knees and the breeze lifted her hair a strand at a time. Just enough for her to feel it. Eyes shut, she listened to the silence that was trying so hard not to be.

It was like remembering the tune of a string quartet that had come round the year before last. She heard it, drifting a note at a time between her ears. Each sound was clear, strong as the day that it escaped the violin. That last high note resonated in a cloud around her head, swelling into that same victorious ascent so sharp it cut her out of the world and left her spinning in its grip.

Then she tried to hum it and the tune came out muted, every note a little too close together on the scales, every note just a little off. Then she thought she remembered that next progression, and ended up repeating it over and over to herself, because it came out in the wrong order like the key taps of her first piano lessons. It wasn’t the sound stored up in her head, just the wordless message it had printed onto her. A silence, that could never be soundless.

Some great-great-grandfather of hers had built this hall. He’d set it just so on the island, cleverly pointed into the wind like the sails of one of his ships and torn it open again with a thousand seeping holes in the walls and the pillars. It looked mad: heavy walls with swirling lines of coin-sized holes. When she was very small, Ineli had walked down the hall and poked her finger into each one, feeling the metal lining, and wondering what kind of monster spat acid into the wall to make it look like that. Her mother told her it was for music, that the hole used to whistle or hum depending on their size, but she thought her monster theory made more sense.

Until she was twelve and her father had a whole line of buildings torn down to their foundations on the next block. It looked like something had come down and stomped hard in the middle of the crowded city but it let the wind in for the first time in decades. The hall sang, one note after another, the orchestra hidden in the walls while the wind dashed between them. Ineli listened for hours, trying to memorize the melody that composed itself hour by hour.

The city had been rebuilt since then. The breeze that trickled through now tossed the muted tune around, but when it tried to hum it, it came out wrong. Ineli listened, trying to match the disordered notes to the melody she’d heard, as if she could give the breeze advice on the things it was having trouble remembering.

But it had the message right.

Aithan, her bodyguard shifted on his feet a few feet to her left.

Ineli opened her eyes but didn’t raise her head. “Everything all right?” she asked.

He nodded, quiet. She smiled at him, wondering if he could hear that strained recollection as well, if that was the reason he didn’t speak much when they came here.

“What time is it?” she asked.

He glanced down at the shadows of the pillars. “Ten,” he said, not quite firmly enough to convince her it was exact.

“We should go,” she said. She set her feet back on the ground and pulled herself up off the bench. One more moment to listen, just to see if it would trip into another muted note and then she started for the exit at the end of the long hall. Her heels tapped and echoed and drowned everything else out. Aithan strode beside her, his boots thumping against the stone floor, his chain mail ringing with each jolt of his step.

“Why do you come here?” he asked.

Ineli looked back at him. “Sometimes it’s good,” she said. “To sit in a place that admits something is missing.”

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