A Song, Against the Metronome

MetronomeNafti bent double outside the door to his hut, coughing to catch his breath as Ilanaya labored inside. When word had reached him at the textile factory that his child’s time had come, he had left the midwife’s boy awkwardly stuttering among the scouring kiers and raced through the surviving underbrush. The parched rainforest had begun its evening song, the sleepy chirps a buzzing counterpoint to the thudding cadence of Nafti’s workboots.

Now he glared around his darkening village, hating the silence. Births were always accompanied by celebration, songs, dance. . . but not this one. For this springtime arrival, silence in the village for a child that should have been born to the summer.

The runner had said that the baby might survive for a few minutes, if the gods were kind. The season had been too dry; the drought had robbed the mother’s strength and a daughter could not thrive in an arid womb.

A few minutes.

He kicked his bare foot at the dusty clay of the ground, trying to convince himself that the tightness in his throat was from anger. Someone switched on a battery-powered radio nearby, and switched it back off immediately among hushed, scolding voices.

Silence again.

Then the curtains of the hut parted, and Nafti followed the midwife inside. The baby had arrived, though there had been no cries.

Ilanaya lay on the mats in the middle of the floor, spent and breathing hard. Nafti stroked her wet hair away from her forehead, and she turned her face to his hand. The dampness wasn’t only from sweat. Salty drops slid between his fingers to be sucked deep into the swept hardpack floor.

Next to Ilanaya lay a tiny bundle.

“Hold her,” Ilanaya said. “I can’t. . . .”

“Rest, mother.” Nafti said. “You did well.”

Ilanaya closed her eyes, and her breaths came regular and deep. Nafti unwrapped the bundle, and clenched his fists.

He had expected some deformed thing, some monster. He had wanted to see a twisted, unidentifiable creature among the folds of cloth, one that he could return to the gods without even bothering to teach it their Glorified Names.

But this was his daughter. She was. Spindly as a bird’s claw, she lay limp and still in the blanket. He saw that her eyelids were sealed together. They would never open.

He felt a bitter surge of love, and placed his hand on her chest. It covered her whole torso; underneath his palm he felt the weak thud of her heart. Slow. Far too slow for a newborn baby.

He found himself counting the beats. How many would there be? He could count them all. He pulled his mind away as if he had been burned.

He knelt beside his sleeping wife, suddenly desperate to lift his daughter away from the thirsty earth. Most of the weight of her was from the blanket.

A few minutes. If the gods were kind.

How could he be a father in only a few minutes?

“Nafti?” he asked, an unplanned prayer to his namesake among the gods. But he did not know what to ask the god of songs; what guidance could He give?

How fitting, how cruel it was that his daughter’s life would shine for only the length of a song.

A song.

Unbidden, the Children’s Melody sang into his mind. The first song taught to a child of the village, the listing of the Glorified Names. The cheerful one that always made Ilanaya laugh when they passed the open-air school. It began with the children bellowing out to the gods they had been named for, each trying to outdo the others. The clamor shook the jungle and Ilanaya said it could open the doors of heaven itself.

“Abeyeh,” Nafti began, and choked on the name they had chosen long ago. Kindness and mercy, the gentle goddess of summer rain. He realized he had only mouthed the word, that no sound had come out. The tiny heart thudded in his arms, though Abeyeh did not stir. He swallowed, clenching his eyes shut against tears.

“Abeyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh!” the name tore from his throat, drawn out to its longest so the gods would know on whose behalf he called. The name was a plea; it was an accusation.

Ilanaya’s eyes opened at his voice, and he laid a hand on her forehead.

“Abeyeh,” he sang. “Paresha. Kitayen, Fald, Tipantise.” His daughter’s heart beat like the metronome that had plagued him during his brief course of study at the university ten miles away. Each phrase of music had been a prayer to his namesake, but none so holy as this song, in these moments. He found himself singing out one name for each tiny, slow thud. No, not fast enough. Abeyeh might run out of heartbeats before he finished. He sped up. “Nipas, Ilanaya, Beyshe.”

Ilanaya took in a breath and joined him, weak though she was. “Hena. Weyat.”

Nafti lay down next to Ilanaya on the mat, Abeyeh cuddled between them. The song was upbeat and joyful, and it rang through the village as their neighbors came out of their huts to help them break the silence of the night. A celebration of the fleeting life in their arms.

Abeyeh’s heart slowed, and they held her closer, singing as fast as their mouths could form the Names. They couldn’t help but laugh when they stumbled over the syllables, and they wiped away each other’s tears before the thirsty ground could take them.

As the tiny thuds came further and further apart, Nafti knew he was a true father to this brief spark of life. A song in place of tears, fierce love instead of silent despair.

And laughter. Abeyeh had heard the sound of laughter.

As they sang the last of the Glorified Names, the tiny heart gave its final beat.

Outside the hut, the first drops of rain whispered the Children’s Melody into the arid earth.