This happened a long time ago, a very long time ago, and people have different ideas about what musical instrument the woman played. Was it something like an oud or a guitar, to be plucked and strummed? Was it more like a violin or a haegum, played with a bow? In some places they say that what she played was the very first zhonghu, the very first harp, the very first dulcimer. It had strings, for everywhere it is agreed that she would sit beside the mountain road in the morning sun and hum to herself as she tuned. Then she would play.
And what music! People passing on the road would put down their burdens and close their eyes to listen. Her playing was so beautiful that if she had not rested now and then, some of these travelers might never have continued their journeys. They might have stayed there beside the road forever listening to one more phrase, and then one more after that. But the woman would stop playing at some point, and the travelers would give her a crust of bread, or a coin, or simply a word of thanks if that was all they had to give. They were generous, according to what they had. This was how she lived.
The travelers, meanwhile, spread word of her music. They told how even the heaviest burden seemed lighter if taken up again after a few songs. Bearers and caravans would choose a longer route if it meant that they could stop to hear her music along the way. If this had not happened so very long ago, some king or emperor might have summoned her to his court to be the royal musician, but this was long ago, in a time before emperors or kings.
Years passed. Eventually, she was not the woman musician, not even the old woman, but the old, old musical crone. Her hair was white. Her hands shook, except for when she played. But her music, if it had changed at all, was even more beautiful.
One night, Death came into the little room where she lived. She asked if she might play one last time before she left the world. “Have you not played music enough in your long life?” said Death. But he consented to a song, since he had never heard her play.
Death was just as business-like then as he is now. He meant to give her time for one song, and one song only. But the chords were so sweet that he found himself entranced, and as the last notes faded, he stood very still. He was just about to stir himself and lay his bony hands upon the woman’s soul when she began the notes of a second song. Death thought to himself, “What is the harm in one more song?”
He listened again, and again when he was about to rouse himself to action, the woman began a third song, and then a fourth. All through the night the old, old woman played, and when the first orange light of morning came through the window, Death was in no mood to take hold of anyone. The woman looked about and found that she was alone, so she slept away the morning, then played beside the road in her customary way all afternoon. All through that day and throughout all the world, no person died.
By nightfall, Death was himself again. He came to the woman’s little room. When the musician saw him, she asked if she might play one more time before she left the world. Death knew that he should deny her. He knew that he should stretch out his hand and seize her. But he remembered how beautiful her music had been, like nothing he had ever heard since the beginning of the world. He hesitated for a moment, and in that moment, she began to play. And as before, the woman did not cease to play until the morning light, when Death had lost his grim resolve. No one died on that day, either.
On the third night and day, it was the same. And on the fourth, and so on. For night after night, the musician played for Death, and night after night, Death hesitated when she asked his permission.
This continued not for a week or a month. It went on for a year, and then a dozen years, and then a century. It continued for another century after that, and in all this time, no one died. However, all the other constants of the world went on. Lovers loved. Marriages were celebrated, and children born. There was no child that did not know her grandparents, her great-grandparents, and their parents and grandparents before them. Indeed, they might all live under the same roof. The world began to be a crowded place.
And still, the musician played. Night after night after century, Death came to her and could not refuse her offer of a song. Year after year, more people were born into the world. But where to put them all? How to feed them? So many people crowded the world that even the best of harvests brought in only enough grain for each person to have just a taste.
The musician still spent part of each day in her place beside the road, and she began to notice that the people passing by were much thinner than they once had been. As she played, she saw that the children were the thinnest of all. Why, some children were so slight that sunlight passed right through them, and a gentle breeze might blow a few of them into the sky where they would drift like leaves for a while. Seeing this, the old woman was like a person waking from a dream. All at once, she stopped playing, sprang to her feet, and broke her instrument against the ground.
That night, Death took the old woman, and he was busy long after carrying off the souls of people who, if not for the music, would have died years or centuries before. At last, there were only as many people in the world as there ought to be. At last, there was food enough to feed the children, and children grew sturdy and tall. But not as tall as the people of long ago. The hungry years had left their mark, and the race of man and woman has not recovered yet, nor ever will be as great as once it was. And though there are many fine musicians in our time, though we may stop and close our eyes to listen to their tunes, though our burdens may be lighter after we have heard a beautiful song, even though all these things are still so, we will never hear music so lovely that Death himself will stop and listen until the end.
Copyright © 2007 by Bruce Holland Rogers