For the first time in years, a Singer comes to the village with news of the outside world, and a special message for someone.
There was an air of unexpected jubilation in the village when the Singer arrived. Not because it wasn’t a cause for celebration, but because he had arrived unannounced, the first one to visit in some years. Joel, the mayor, had secretly begun to wonder if the Singers had stopped their trade for good and seeing the old man walk down the crooked, dusty main street surrounded by a gaggle of excited children pestering him with endless questions caused an unfamiliar sensation of hope to swell within him. The Singer himself had a worn, tired air to him but he bore the attention of his scrawny fans with stoic calm and gentle smiles. The villagers peered out of their windows to see what the fuss was about and they all fell silent when they saw who it was.
Joel climbed over the tumbledown fence that demarked his meagre fields and wiped his hands off on his shirt as he walked towards the village square. He met the Singer in front of the memorial and bowed his head respectfully to him. “Welcome, Singer.”
“Are you the leader of this community?” he asked in a hoarse voice. He absently patted the head of a young girl bouncing beside him.
“I am, sir. The mayor. Name’s Joel Markham.”
“A pleasure, Mr Markham. I am called Singer Garth.” He put a knuckly hand against his chest and then looked around the small village. “This place is a sight for sore eyes, Mr Markham – and feet.”
Joel smiled faintly. There wasn’t much to the village; just a few dozen ramshackle houses that were more like sheds, arranged around this central memorial, a rough-hewn block of stone craved with the names of friends and family lost in the Fall. The only thing to recommend it was the scenery; they made their home in a valley surrounded on all sides by tall, rugged mountains that were once capped with snow. The peaks were no longer visible through the grey haze of the Dust, of course, but there was still a kind of beauty to the place that Joel found reassuring. “Come to my house, Singer Garth,” he said, leading the old man towards his home, a shack almost indistinguishable from the others. “When you’re rested and eaten, you can tell us what news you have of the outside world.”
“There’s little enough of that, I fear,” the Singer said darkly, “but I thank you for your hospitality.”
Joel’s wife Henrietta made a broth for their evening meal and the three of them sat around the upturned crate that served them as a table and ate in a somewhat awkward silence. Joel watched the Singer carefully. The last one he’d seen had been a younger man, and much more gregarious and energetic. All Singers were different of course, for that was the nature of the trade, but this one seemed quieter than most.
“You’re the first Singer who’s visited in years,” Henrietta said.
“Hm,” Garth nodded, “there aren’t so many of us now.”
“Why’s that?” Joel asked. It was impolite to enquire directly about news from a Singer – the whole idea was for them to deliver it in their own way – but more general questions were allowed.
“Hard to find children with the aptitude,” he shrugged. He blew gently on a spoonful of broth before swallowing it and smacking his lips in appreciation. It was weak, watery stuff, but filling enough.
“Oh?” Henrietta pressed.
“Hard to find children at all,” he told them sadly. “Most villages have perhaps a handful. You’re lucky here.”
Joel reached for Henrietta’s hand under the table and squeezed gently. The village may have been fortunate, but they certainly hadn’t been. “We’re sheltered here,” he said, “by the mountains. The Dust mostly passes over.”
“Hm,” Garth said again, “it would be good to stay here a while.”
Henrietta smiled. “You’re welcome for as long as you wish.”
“I can’t stay. I’m a Singer. I have messages to deliver.”
“Of course. Where have you come from?” Joel asked him.
“And will you head west after leaving here?”
“Perhaps.” He tapped the side of his head with one gnarled finger. “The Songs will tell me where to go.”
“Of course.” They finished their remaining broth in silence.
The next morning, the whole village gathered in the square to listen to the Singer. He stood before the memorial stone, swaying slightly on his feet. An expectant hush fell as he cleared his voice. “I have news of other places,” he said without preamble, “but that can wait a moment. I came here because of a Song that was given to me in the beginning, when the Fall was fresh in the sky.” He lifted his hands up to the grey pall of cloud that hung over all their heads, and had now for more than a decade. “I was one of the first Singers. When the old signals failed and the world grew dark, they turned to folks like me who could remember the Songs to carry messages. I have walked the long road ever since those days, singing the Songs. This is one of the first I came to know, and I deliver it at long last.” He looked out at the crowd and fixed his gaze on Joel. “You are Joel Markham?”
Joel started. Everyone’s eyes were on him now. “I…yes, I am. You have a Song for me?”
“I do, sir. Given to me by one named Frank Leibowitz.”
“Frank…” he murmured the name to himself. He’d forgotten Frank, like so much else. “Go on,” he said, “please.”
The Singer cleared his throat again and then his voice lifted. It was a cracked, fragile sound, but pure all the same. He delivered the words in a rhythmic cadence, the technique used by Singers to memorise the often complex messages that they carried across the continent.
“Hi, Joel, I hope that all is well. It’s been a crazy few months hasn’t it? Hard to believe the news. Hard to believe the things we’re seeing. All that smoke and ash, all that fire and ruin. Head office is talking about scaling back operations until everything’s figured out, until everything’s right again. Here in Boston it’s not so bad, just some killer sunsets so far. I hear things are pretty bad out West, I’ve seen the lines of refugees, huddled and scared, huddled and scared. Hard to know how things are going to work out, hard to know where we’ll be this time next year. Jane is thinking we might try overseas, maybe go to England. The economy’s going to take a hit for certain, but I’m sure we’ll pull through. We always pull through, right? Love to the family, get back to me when you can, get back to me when you can, Frank.”
He fell silent and let the forgotten words sink in. A cold wind blew down from the mountains, over the bare fields and through the streets that wound between the corrugated-iron shacks. It tugged at the children’s ragged dresses, bit into their thin, pale bodies. It smelled of ash and death.