To Sing a Song of
By Antonio Urias
Florence dreamt of
darkness. It stretched endlessly all around her, darker
even than the purest black, and empty except for the
Music. It was faint at first, just a few notes
whispering to each other in the void. Then by some
inscrutable alchemy, they formed a melody. To Florence’s
trained ear, it seemed to be the opening chords of a
greater theme, achingly familiar, full of longing, yet
Music whispered to her in a voice that was not a voice.
“Sing!” Florence blinked and when she opened her eyes,
the void was gone.
She was on a small
stage. It smelled of new paint and wooden planks. Behind
her sat a piano innocently playing itself.
“Sing!” Came the
voice that was not a voice. She stared out at rows of
“Sing,” the Music
compelled, burrowing under her skin, and without
conscious thought she obeyed. Her mouth opened
compulsion, the need to sing, grew unbearably strong.
She tried, and she tried, but no matter how hard she
struggled, no sound could ever come.
and was awake. She gazed around blearily. The stagecoach
rattled down the road. The swinging motion making her
nauseous, sending tendrils of pain up the back of her
neck. She felt tired, trapped. The dry heat pressed
against her skin and crawled inside her pores. Her
mother stirred next to her, sweating profusely. It had
been a long road from Spearfish. Across from them sat a
strange little man. His clothes were well tailored, but
crumpled and dusty from long use. He had introduced
himself as Mr. Greene, Gent. But Florence decided he was
probably a con man of some sort. She knew the type. They
fluttered from town to town like carrion birds.
frowned at the horizon. Florence turned and followed his
gaze. At the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of a
rider in the distance. She blinked and the hazy shape
was gone. Only a mirage. She sighed in relief.
Mr. Greene asked. She caught traces of an unfamiliar
accent. He watched her with a mild, expectant
expression, and the merest hint of a twinkle in his
eyes. She felt an irrational desire to tell him
everything, to tell him about the months of bad dreams,
and above all, about the song in her head. Somehow she
knew he wouldn’t think it was silly or meaningless. Oh
how Florence wished she could tell him, but she couldn’t
anymore than she could sing. Florence was mute.
Dakota was one of countless mining towns dotting the
landscape. It had started as a handful of pitched tents
filled with desperate men looking for salvation in the
gold. Now the town was growing at an increasing rate and
hints of civilization were trickling in from the east: a
telegraph office the previous May, and tonight, the
grand opening of the Argos Theater.
sat in one corner reading the same paragraph over and
over. Every so often she would glance up at the stage.
Her father sat at the piano with his fingers poised.
“Ready,” he asked
glanced up at her mother. She nodded and began to sing.
Their duets were always a thing of great beauty. Once it
had seemed that she was destined to tread the boards in
London or Paris. One by one those dreams had died, but
biter disappointment could not destroy her voice. The
other members of the troupe stopped their own rehearsals
Florence took the
opportunity to study them. She hadn’t seen them in
months, not since they had gone ahead to build the
theater. There were the acrobats, Krueger and Rice,
stretching and getting limber, Albertus the Great, whose
acts of prestidigitation were variable, depending on how
much liquor he’d had that day, the Machen Brothers who
could perform Shakespearean quotations at the drop of a
hat, and all the rest. Florence hadn’t missed them, any
of them. They were always watching her, some with eyes
full of disgust. How dare Celia Coburn’s daughter be
mute! Others pitied her. ‘Poor little Florence’ their
eyes seemed to say. She was sick of it. She didn’t want
their pity. She didn’t want any of it.
“Sing,” whispered the
voice that was not a voice. Just because she couldn’t
talk didn’t mean she was stupid or slow, but even her
own mother treated her like a half-wit sometimes.
“Sing,” the voice
demanded. She could hear the melody now intertwined with
her mother’s song. Florence looked back at the stage.
Her mother was silent, staring at her with an unreadable
“Sing,” her mother
said at length. Florence started. Her father looked up
from his piano keys. “Sing,” he said.
tumbled to the floor. The Music was everywhere. It
drowned out her thoughts. The song bubbled up against
her skin. Her own body felt claustrophobic. She wanted
to tear at her flesh, to escape. Her head felt like it
was going to burst. She glanced at the troupe, who were
watching her with blank eyes, her parents looking down
from the stage.
“Sing,” they all said
with the voice of the Music. She opened her mouth, the
Music swelled, and she awoke.
Florence sat in one
corner of the theater. The Machen Brothers were
rehearsing on stage. She blinked the sleep from her
eyes. She just wanted peace away from the gnawing eyes
and the Music.
“Sing!” whispered the
“No,” she shouted,
but no one heard her.
She ran. Out the door
and through the streets, she ran and kept on running.
She dodged riders and carriages on instinct. Hogs,
horses, and the people watching passed without notice.
She stumbled, mud splattering all over her new dress,
but she ran on until there was no more town, only the
desert, and the mountains. Here on the edge she found
Mr. Greene. His eyes twinkled at her softly. He offered
her no pity, only candy.
There was something
different about him. Florence had spent her whole life
among actors. She knew an act when she saw one. Beneath
that twinkle was something smoldering and utterly
foreign. She felt strangely reassured. In the distance a
wren rasped out a song.
Mr. Greene smiled.
“There is music everywhere,” he said. “In every river,
every bird and beast, even you and me.” Florence glanced
sharply at him. “We are nature’s orchestra,” he
continued. “But I wonder who’s writing the song?” He
gestured almost imperceptivity out at the desert. There
in the distance, Florence could see the hazy idea of a
man. She’d seen it before, from the stagecoach, and it
was coming closer. She shivered slightly.
“Trust me,” Mr.
Greene said and tapped her softly on her nose. Despite
herself she smiled back. So arm in arm they headed back
toward the theater.
“I believe you’re
looking for this,” Mr. Greene said as they entered.
Celia was on them in moments. She immediately began to
fuss over her daughter.
“How could you run
out like that? Where did you go?” She asked as if
Florence could answer.
“I found her at the
edge of town,” Mr. Greene said. Celia spared him a
“And we’re grateful
to you for bringing her back,” Florence’s father joined
them. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Francis Coburn.”
They shook hands. “I hope you’ll join us tonight.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for
the world,” said Mr. Greene.
The townsfolk packed
the house, as Mr. Greene took his seat. Under the
flickering gaslights of the theater, Florence stood
proudly at her father’s side, while he gave his speech.
Florence had heard it dozens of times before, in every
new town. His voice lilted up and down almost like a
melody. Florence tried to shake her head clear, but she
could hear the Music in his voice, in the squeaking of
chairs and sick coughs. The cacophony of noise and
silence somehow merged with the song in her head and
filled her beyond saturation point. She felt so heavy
with its weight. She needed to escape and be free. The
music pounded at her skull. She collapsed to her knees,
and the world spun into darkness.
“Sing,” ordered the
Music. Florence opened her eyes. There was a gun pointed
at her head. The dark faceless shape of the Songwriter
stared down at her. His very skin seemed to hum. “Sing!”
he said. His voice called to the Music within her.
Florence wanted to, needed to sing. The great theme
gathered itself together. Notes quivered in
She stared out at the
rows of seats, all full. The crowd was screaming and
yelling with their own guns drawn. Her mother was
shouting something, but all Florence could hear was the
“She can’t talk,”
Mrs. Coburn cried.
“I don’t need her to
talk,” the Songwriter said. “I need her to sing.”
The song surged up
her throat but she desperately choked the first notes
down. Her parents, the crowd, and the guns were all
distractions. All her concentration was focused on
keeping the song inside, but it hurt so much. Her eyes
searched the crowd wildly. Mr. Greene was in the third
row, the only still point in the seething mass of the
crowd. He met her gaze steadily. Then he nodded ever so
slightly and winked. Florence sighed in relief and began
She sang with a gun
pointed at her head. The lyrics flowed through her.
Words she didn’t know painted images she could never
comprehend. She drowned in the song of universes. Her
thoughts and dreams were hollowed out and all that
remained was the Music. She sang of distant worlds and
suns, of comets and asteroids, of space and time.
As she sang, the
melody began to morph, by some strange alchemy into
reality. The world transfigured into the universe of her
song. The crowd sank down vanishing into the notes. Mr.
Greene made his way cautiously to the stage. He put his
hat down on top of the piano and sat. He glanced around.
The theater was gone now. The stage sat alone in a
clearing. Where the crowd had been grew purple saplings
reaching their branches up toward a strange sun. Mr.
Greene cracked his fingers and began to play.
The piano notes
echoed out into the strange air, at first only a
variation on the Songwriter’s greater theme. Lost in the
music, Florence latched onto Mr. Greene ’s creation.
Slowly the variation grew ever greater. The piano keys
wrapped themselves around the music and hollowed the
chords out. Two musical themes did battle but Florence
didn’t notice. All that mattered to her was the song.
The lyrics stayed the same, but the melody changed note
The Songwriter turned
his faceless glare on Mr. Greene. His skin hummed
desperately. “Stop,” it demanded.
Mr. Greene stared
down the barrel of a gun. He played one more note
mockingly then stopped. There was silence. Then Florence
continued to sing Mr. Greene ’s composition.
“What have you done,”
the Songwriter asked. “That is not my song.”
“No?” Mr. Greene
stood. “But I thought you might enjoy a duet.” Florence
sang of the stars. The Songwriter felt a sharp stab of
pain. The gun slipped from his fingers. He screamed.
Searing hot pain filled him.
“What have you done?”
He sank gasping to his knees.
“A minor alteration
in scale,” Mr. Greene said. As Florence sang of alien
birds and beasts, of star children and icy darkness, the
walls of theater faded back. The crowd lay in silent
repose. Still Florence sang.
“I just wanted to see
my creation,” the Songwriter said.
“You will.” Mr.
Greene stared down at the screaming Songwriter.
“This isn’t what I
“No,” Mr. Greene
agreed. Behind him his shadow seemed to grow, flickering
in the light, and for the briefest moment it was not the
shadow of a man, but of a great horned creature with
cloven hooves, and the legs of a goat. The Songwriter
fell back with a cry then collapsed.
The song reached a
crescendo and finally ended. Florence gazed around
feeling strangely empty. Behind her Mr. Greene was
knelt over the still form of the Songwriter.
“Don’t worry,” Mr.
Greene called over his shoulder. “It’s just a shell.
That’s all it ever was. The only difference now is
Florence asked without thinking. She gasped and put a
hand over her mouth. “I can talk!”
“Yes,” Mr. Greene
said. “The Songwriter wanted to replace this world with
his own. He injected your mother and waited for the song
to incubate, but he didn’t expect you to be mute. To
make a mute sing, he had to come here himself,” Mr.
Greene smiled a crooked smile. “That was a mistake. I
changed the music just enough. Instead of replacing the
world I replaced him.” Mr. Greene gestured down at the
Songwriter. Underneath his lifeless skin lay the
universe of his design.
“I know who you are
now,” Florence said.
Mr. Greene stood. “Do
you?” His eyes were unreadable.
confidence man, who makes the world believe he’s human.”
“Yes, that’s right.
I’m the confidence man.” His eyes twinkled again.
“I can see the
universe. I can hear its song.”
“I’m sorry,” Mr.
“I know,” Florence
smiled softly. Mr. Greene reached out. “Wait,” his hand
paused. “Will I still be able to talk?”
“Maybe,” he said. His
eyes filled with a terrible kindness. “I don’t know”
He brushed a hand
against her forehead. Florence’s mind went fuzzy and she
knew no more.
The theater was
empty. No one was quite sure what had happened. Florence
knew she had something important to tell her mother, but
she couldn’t concentrate. She’d even opened her mouth to
speak but only garbled sounds came out. For some reason
that had disappointed her, as if she should have been
able to talk, but that was impossible. She stared sadly
at the rows of empty seats. “You know you can’t talk,”
she told herself silently. Then slowly as if in a dream
she began to sing softly, but there was no one there to