The feeling of the brisk air on his face, the sound of the wind shaking leaves from the trees, and the smell of pine in the woods on a beautiful sunny fall day all combined together did absolutely nothing to offset the feeling of utter loss Joe had experienced just a few short weeks ago.
As a man, Joe was taught that you were supposed to be the strong one. The one everyone leans on. He was not expected to feel loss, pain, or even suffer like his wife when a miscarriage occurred. And while it’s true that the experience is not the same, it doesn’t mean that a man, like Joe, could simply move on or ‘get over it.’
And when he found out that it was much, much worse than a miscarriage, that it was a trauma of such magnitude that children were not even a possibility anymore, Joe’s world fell apart.
He fell to his knees.
He actually broke.
But we all heal.
Scars cover the wounds.
And after time passes a man, such as Joe, begins to feel something besides pain and sorrow again. Every now and then he laughed. But immediately he felt guilty as he realized the enormity of what was lost.
It’s not just the loss of a child, but the loss of the entire future imagined ahead of him, his wife and the child, and the child Joe and his wife named Joy.
She was actually going to be named Joy. The irony left Joe and his wife with sorrow instead.
It wasn’t long before well-meaning people started saying, “You can always adopt.” Trying to give hope for building the family they had planned and talked about for several years. And while they could have done so, and it would have been wonderful, the thing they were ignoring was what was lost.
You see, Joe got to hold Joy in his arms on the day she was born. He stayed up with her at night when his wife was too tired. He watched her first steps. Made her laugh uncontrollably. Joy would run to Joe when she was scared in the middle of the night because monsters lurked under the bed, in the closet, or in the shadows. She would fall asleep in his arms after a long day of playing, laughing, and exploring the outdoors. Joe would carry her from his parent’s house to the car as her head lolled to one side completely oblivious to the world; trusting so completely that she never stirred. And when he tucked her in at night, she’d would curl up on her side and softly snore as she tightly hugged her favorite bunny doll next to her.
His wife stayed at home with Joy taking time out from her home business to play, cook, dress up, draw, sing, dance, and learn. They’d have entire performances ready for Joe to watch after he’d get back from a long day at the office.
Their inevitable trip to Disney World when she turned six was miraculous. Watching her wide-eyed amazement of all the movie characters come to life was sheer happiness for Joe and his wife.
Her first school dance. Her first heartbreak. Her first solo. Her graduation. Her acceptance to college. Her first big job in her chosen career. Her husband. Her first born.
Joy was a dancer and an actress and a scientist and a mother.
But none of it happened. None of it would happen.
It was all gone.
Other people just didn’t get it.
They didn’t understand what was lost.
Joe and his wife didn’t talk about it either. Probably not the best approach, but they knew they’d just break down. Joe and his wife stayed focused on what they could do in front of them each day and tried to take the time to just heal. They spoke to their pastor and found some solace in their faith, even if not understanding God’s plan. They believed there was a purpose. There had to be.
But sometimes, a man has to break away and step out of his life for a time to just get some perspective. Perhaps even some enlightenment elsewhere to be free of his daily routine that keeps him locked into his feelings and his loss.
Joe had been strong. But he needed to not be. So Joe arranged for his wife’s sister to take her away for a few days to break her out of her daily rituals and Joe planned to do so for himself. Luckily, his wife silently understood. She knew Joe needed to grieve as much as she had to.
And so, he found himself hiking in the woods, passing other hikers who smiled and commented, “Beautiful day for a hike, isn’t it?” Joe would smile back and say, “Amazing!” or some such thing until they passed and he could let his happy visage slip away.
His trip to the woods was on a day after several weeks of cold wet weather. But the trails had dried up enough for hiking and they were packed with people from town ready for some sunshine. It was one of the reasons Joe chose this as his escape from reality as well.
But there were too many people. He grew weary of the pleasantries and decided to go off the trail and create his own path in the woods.
Joe must have just gone into auto pilot as he plunged headlong into the woods. One foot in front of the other. Mechanical. Methodical. Meditative.
The woods, usually fairly spacious, started to close in with a lot more underbrush than Joe ever remember. Where there weren’t underbrush, there were huge boulders. He had to slow down and consider his footsteps more carefully.
As he moved through the underbrush, he looked up for a moment and noticed the sun was reaching the noon hour and clouds were coming together. As he did, he managed to step into a leafy patch that had nothing beneath.
His left foot rolled sideways and Joe felt tendons pop. Keeping his wits about him, he tried to roll to the left to keep his foot from slipping down further and possibly breaking. Unfortunately, a large boulder was all that he had to catch himself. He missed with his hand and, instead, hit the boulder hard with the left forearm and raked it down across it before finally hitting the ground.
Pain and fire shot across his arm, which he was sure was not broken, but definitely scraped and bruised – perhaps even lacerated. He quickly freed his foot from the hole he’d slipped into. He could move his toes, but the ankle was definitely sprained and swelling.
Joe laid there for a while, cursed a bit, and yelled in frustration a little more than he’d admit to others later. It was like he had to let out some primal screaming with the hell he’d been through – they both had been through.
It felt good. So still laying on his back, he screamed again. He screamed until his throat was raw.
The pain, sorrow, and loss were still there, however.
It didn’t vanish.
He didn’t know how long he had laid there screaming. He started to wonder if someone had heard him and grew concerned that someone may think he was in real trouble and needed help.
Slowly Joe sat up and took stock of his condition.
Besides his throat being sore, and his abs aching from the spasms of crying, he rolled up his left sleeve to find that his arm was pretty scraped up and a little bloody. He could twist his arm, flex his fingers and no blood was gushing out, just really bruised and battered. It wasn’t broken or fractured and definitely still usable.
Joe’s foot, however, was a little different. As he removed his hiking boot, and rolled off his sock, Joe found the ankle to be crazy swollen and the side of his foot, where he felt the tendons pop, were bruised and swollen as well.
Sitting there, he again flexed his foot and wiggled his toes, all without any serious pain. While the foot was throbbing, there was no piercing pain. He thought that was good and counted his blessings.
Slowly, Joe rolled his sock back on and put his boot back on which caused some discomfort. He then laced up the boot tight and tried standing up.
‘THERE’S the pain!’ Joe thought as it shot from the whole foot up to his brain.
He quickly used the boulder for balance (instead of a cheese grater this time). Joe put a little weight on his foot and it was a little less painful. He took some time to take some short steps, and it got even a little better. The problem now was that he was a little off balance.
Looking around, Joe found a wood of some weight, length and strength and started using it as a walking stick.
Before moving on, however, Joe sat on the boulder and broke out his pack to clean up his bloody arm. While there, he also took a short lunch break and considered how he would proceed with his hike from here on out.
With the weather still nice, but cloudy, Joe decided to keep hiking. He hadn’t been to this part of the woods and was interested in what may lay ahead.
With his arm cleaned up, foot taking his weight, and pack all stowed, Joe grabbed his new walking stick and made his way through the brush which was still surprisingly dense.
The wind started to kick up and he could hear the sound of water flowing ahead. After some time and effort, the brush started to thin to the point where he just had to duck and dodge a few branches.
With just a few steps more, there was a sudden break in the tree line and a huge outcropping of stone lay ahead. Joe stepped out from the tree line and saw it was a rocky ledge overlooking a valley with a small river that flowed below – the source of the water sound he had heard.
Joe stepped closer to the cliff to get a better view just as the sun broke free of the clouds and shined a beam down upon the valley. It was glorious. All the pain and suffering of the hike made this moment especially fantastic to see.
Finally having a bit of a good feeling was nice, but as always, it didn’t last long.The guilt kicked in. Joe dropped his shoulders and slumped. His head dropped looking straight down. When he did, he got a bit of the vertigo feeling and started to step back from the ledge. But just then, a thought hit him, ‘Why not just fall?’ Why not let go of all this pain and move on?
But Joe stepped back from the ledge suddenly and reflected, ‘What if I didn’t die and just ended up paralyzed? My wife would have to take care of me the rest of our lives… if she even would after everything else.’
Joe sat down and stared at the view.
There were no sounds now but the wind above and water below. No traffic from the trails. No highway noise. No planes. Joe was surprised there were no trails to this spot with such an amazing view.
He pulled his pack off and laid back on it using it as a pillow and stared into the sky.
After some time, he noticed two eagles played on the currents of wind nearly directly above where he lay. They seemed to just hang above him in the air at times as the wind was so strong and steady. He wondered what it would be like to fly on the currents of the wind. He wondered if these events were simply currents that needed to be coasted upon instead of fighting against them. The eagles didn’t fight. They soared.
Joe’s mind cleared. He stayed in the moment watching the eagles.
He listened to the water that flowed in the valley below.
He drifted into sleep.
Joe woke with the sound of music.
It must have been a dream. As he sat up, there was nothing but wind and the water nearby. The eagles had flown away. And the sun, still behind the clouds, was definitely lower than it had been when he nodded off.
Joe tried to remember what music was he dreaming about.
Getting up from his nap, he adjusted his pack over his shoulders and used his walking stick to stand up. Once again, the pain in his foot was jarring, but the more he moved around, the less it hurt.
He turned to gain his bearings and decided he should probably head back and that an overnight in the woods with the injuries he had may not be the best idea. While he had brought a tent along, he thought it might also be too cold in his present condition to sleep well.
Joe noticed that he had come through the trees a little further from the top of a ridge that the rocky outcropping and cliff seemed to run up to. He decided to go higher, walk along the ridge and head back to the trails and, eventually, his car.
As he he made his way heading up the ridge, over the shuffling of his feet and the other sounds of the woods, Joe heard a single noise that sounded like a piano key. A single high note coming from the woods.
He paused for a few moments, but the sound never returned.
He shrugged it off and continued up to the ridge.
As he approached the top, he turned and headed into the woods again. ‘It’s only mid afternoon and I still have plenty of time before dark,’ he thought to himself.
It was just as he entered the tree line into the rustling leaves, that Joe heard another musical note. This one was lower than the first. It repeated several times before only the sounds of the wind in the trees returned..
Joe turned around several times listening for the sound to return and to try to get a bearing on where it was coming from. “Once? I’m imagining. Twice? I could be hallucinating.”
The music returned. A few ethereal notes played together floating gracefully and harmoniously through the trees. And then they stopped.
Joe locked in on the music and it was coming from straight ahead just over the rise. “It has to be coming from there.”
He limped and hurried as fast as his bruised and swollen foot would carry him.
Muted and rich deep sustained tones now carried on the wind drawing him ever closer to the source of the music.
But as Joe reached the crest of the ridge, he tripped and went tumbling head over heels down the other side hitting rocks and sticks along way down. Piles of leaves came sliding down with him as he skidded down the hillside. After what felt like forever to Joe, he came to a sudden and jarring halt as his his head hit the base of a tree with a sickening thud.
“SON OF A …. OWWWWWW!” he shouted face down into the leaves that had tumbled down the hill with him and under him.
Joe slowly rolled onto his side and managed to open his eyes to get his bearings as dizziness engulfed him and fire lanced across his chest from where, he knew, ribs had been broken.
Something warm and wet flowed down his forehead and into his right eye. He wiped his hand across his face and discovered it was now covered in blood.
Slowly sitting up, and as his vision cleared, Joe saw something that his brain wouldn’t let him believe was really there.
There, in the middle of the woods, in a very small clearing, was a grand piano. A squirrel sat on a few keys with a pecan in its paws. It gnawed on the nut and then tried to bash it against one of the keys making a repetitive plinking sound. The nut broke, and the squirrel shoved it in his mouth and leaped off the keys, landing on the lid, and scurrying across the back side finally leaping into and up a tree.
While Joe’s first thought was, ‘Oh, the squirrel was playing the music,’ his second thought – which should have been the first thought – was, ‘Why the hell is there a grand piano in the middle of the woods?!’
Dizzily, Joe struggled to his feet. He definitely bruised his back and side in several places, cracked his head, ribs (not broken, but hurt enough that it was hard to breathe), and discovered that his knee cap was also in considerable pain. But that was all overshadowed by the discovery of the piano.
Joe thought it was weird enough that the piano was there in the first place, but what was even more odd is that it looked nearly brand new with no weathering at all. There was no way anyone could have put it here. There were no trails. And although this was a clearing, the trees surrounding it would not have allowed for any kind of vehicle to bring it here, especially without leaving ruts or some kind of mark in the dirt.
‘I suppose a helicopter could have lowered it here,’ Joe said to himself looking up past the trees. But he shook his head as he realized the stupidity of the comment.
There was also a piano bench.
‘Why wouldn’t there be one?’
Joe hobbled over to the piano, a little scared, a little in wonder, and a little confused. He pulled the bench out and decided to lift the lid. There, inside, was a single piece of sheet music.
Joe picked it up and stared at it. The color drained from his face and he dropped the walking stick and grabbed the piano as if the world had started to shift beneath him.
He didn’t exactly sit on the piano bench, but rather fell onto it perfectly seated and still clutching the music in one hand and the piano with the other. His eyes never left the sheet music.
Slowly, he put the music on the stand, already propped up ready for the sheet to be placed there. Tears welled up in his eyes as he shakily placed his right hand on the piano keyboard, only remembering a few parts of music from his high school days, but enough to know a basic scale. In a steady rhythm, he looked at the first two notes, he recognized, were on the treble clef and an E on the scale. From there he ascended one key to F and then G. Repeating G, then down to F, then E, then D and finally landing on C twice before progressing back up to D, E and repeating E but holding a slight bit longer before briefly hitting the D key and then hitting it again.
Joe leaned back holding the last note for a moment before letting go of the note and staring a the keyboard for several minutes.
He looked around the woods, but no one was there. Not even the squirrel that had been there earlier was still around.
Joe looked back at the sheet music.
It was Beethoven’s piece, Ode to Joy.
Joe sat staring at the sheet music for a very, very long time. So long, in fact, that the sun had started to set. And yet, Joe sat staring.
“I’m dreaming. This is a dream,” was a recurring thought that was accompanied by a numbness that felt akin to being drunk, stoned, or otherwise isolated from all outside thought other than what was right in front of a person.
Finally, Joe stood as if in a trance.
He gathered wood, cleared a space near the piano, and started a fire in a ring of stones he had painfully moved to the clearing. He unpacked his tent and set it up, hammering in anchor pegs, and unrolled his thermal sleeping bag. From time to time, he would stop, turn, and stare at the piano and the sheet music that never moved, even though a breeze would kick up from time to time strong enough to move leaves on the ground. But the sheet music never fluttered.
Night fell and Joe cooked food on the fire, constantly staring at the piano and the music. The fire illuminated and danced across the finely polished surface of the piano’s housing.
As the darkness of the forest enveloped his campsite, Joe slowly retired to the tent for the night, his eyes never wandering too far from the oddity that lay before him. His mind never wandered either. Nor did it wonder. It simply fixated on the music of Beethoven and the piano that existed where it should not.
The wind had died down and the only sound was the crackling of the fire.
As Joe slipped into slumber, he realized he no longer felt the pain he had in his body. The emotional pain was gone as well. There, in the silence and tranquility of the forest, something seen and unseen was moving about him. He didn’t understand why. Just that it was.
While the fire kept Joe warm, he dreamed of his wife and of Joy. Of days in the park. Of days of conflict. Of days of laughter. Of days of sadness. He dreamed of how he and his wife had come together and created this being of light who never got to shine, and yet affected them so deeply and forever.
Finally, Joe dreamed of standing on the cliff that he had slept upon the day before. Joy was by his side holding his hand. She appeared to be a young girl of ten. He could remember all ten years of their time together. And none of it.
He looked down as she looked up at him, smiling taking his hand.
“You didn’t lose me, daddy. I’ll be with you forever. Besides, I would have tortured you as a teenager.”
“You would have been perfect,” Joe said to her. She smiled.
“I have to go. It will be okay.”
“I know. But it’s hard.”
“You’ll know when it’s easy because of this moment,” she squeezed his hand.
Joy turned to Joe and he lifted her into his arms and hugged her hard in an embrace that he hoped he would never forget. An embrace of warmth, connection, and love.
She kissed him on the cheek and said, “I love you, daddy.”
“I love you too. You have fun, okay? Maybe I’ll see you again someday,” Joe said to her as he set her down.
Joy smiled and started skipping and dancing away. The wind picked up and it appeared to take her away and she dissolved into the sky as Joe watched.
Joe woke at peace, but still sad.
He slowly sat up, sore, bruised, battered, and yet, a feeling of acceptance. He was, by no means, over his loss. But the visions, dreams and strange occurrence in the forest gave him some peace.
As he opened his tent, he was not at all surprised that the piano, bench and music were gone from the clearing. No sign of it existed. Not even an indention in the ground. He accepted the experience as it was without any question.
Joe slowly packed up his campsite, strapped it all on his back, grabbed his walking stick, took a last look at the clearing, turned away, and headed home.
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet,
excerpt from On Joy and Sorrow
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises
was often times filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find
it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth
you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board,
remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver,
needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
I love stories with a twist. And I also love finding weird occurrences in the world. This story was inspired by a news article in 2008 about a woman in Harwich, Massachusetts who came across a new piano fully tuned in the woods while on a trail and no idea how it got there.
But a weird news story is not a story. You have to have a human connection. Someone to travel with to experience the strange event. And it has to have some meaning or why make a story.
I wrote this story shortly after a series of losses that occurred closely together. Loosing both uncles on each side of my family (my dad’s brother and my mom’s brother) in the same year was more difficult than I care to admit. My mother died nearly twenty years ago. A member of our spiritual community also died in an accident. It brought up lots of memories.
I used the words of Kahlil Gibran from The Prophet in my own mother’s eulogy and have gone back to the text many times.
The point of the story, of course, is loss and hope and how part of our existence is filled with duality and extremes. I hope you all realize that even the worst experiences in life give us the contrast for the best experiences that life has to offer.
If you’re not familiar with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, here is a magnificent flash mob that builds and builds and builds. I like that this version is triggered when a little girl throws a few coins into a hat and stands there and watches the whole performance completely transfixed, but disappears at the final crescendo and final notes.
She also appears to be about 10 years old.
© 2017 Eric Huber. The Piano is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Photo from Unsplash.com photographer Ryan Holloway of https:[email protected]