An Angel Among Demons

Franz Jørgen Neumann

The week after I turned fifteen, I was abducted and driven into the mountains to the site of an abandoned school overlooking a valley of jungle. I was issued a pair of binoculars with one working barrel and a battery-powered two-way radio, and told that my mother and father would be sliced open if I failed in my duty to spot and report any aircraft that flew over the mountains and into the valley. Because my father had died years ago, of cancer, I wondered if those who had taken me and my older brothers had mistaken us for some other boys entirely.

The only other person posted to the site was an old woman who had once been the lookout. Her eyes were rheumy and she kept indoors, and when I asked her later if it was the military or rivals who’d one day fly over the mountains, she didn’t answer. I saw her only at mealtimes, when she’d leave me a plate of something to eat on the steps outside the mess hall, even though there were plenty of seats inside and we were the only two people around for miles. I imagined she kept to herself because she had seen boys like me come and go and saw no purpose in conversation, which did not bode well for my future.

Many times a day I’d drink from the cistern at the edge of the jungle and dream of running away. The only road to the site was the one on which I’d been brought, by jeep. Thin, near-imaginary trails led up into the mountains; I’d followed more than one, only for it to give out after a few dozen steps. It must have been years since students had trickled down to the school from enclaves high in the mountains.

The majority of my time was spent under the thatched-roofed cabana at the edge of the school grounds where the land sloped steeply, my ears waiting for the purr of aircraft, my stomach impatient for a meal. I imagined that my brothers were down in the valley, trampling through the jungle as members of some guerrilla army, wondering where I was. I slept poorly, anticipating a nighttime attack, and feeling that it was up to me—manning the radio, scanning the silhouette of mountains—to keep them safe.

After a couple of weeks, the two men who’d brought me to the school returned in their jeep with supplies for the old woman. They carried sacks into the building and didn’t come out for some time. When they emerged, they climbed into the jeep and drove up to me. They tossed me a large battery for the radio and cursed when I didn’t catch it. They said how lucky I was to enjoy the view all day long. I think they’d been drinking. They also told me to stop reporting high-flying planes—those weren’t a threat. When I asked when I could go home, they laughed at me and said my family’s debt was paid off this much, holding their thumb and forefinger together so closely that they might as well have touched. I didn’t know what debt they meant.

A month passed, filled with nothing but birdsong, thunder, afternoon drizzle. You’d never know there were drug crops being grown below, or an opposition paramilitary group training new recruits, or whatever it was the jungle concealed that I was both a part of, and not a part of. More than once, I considered that there was nothing down there at all.

I began to wonder what would happen when the gentle afternoon patter turned to daily nonstop rain. There’d be no point listening for aircraft that wouldn’t bother flying in such weather. Would I live with the old woman indoors for all of those months, or would they take me down into the valley? And, once there, what would they have me do?

The men delivered supplies to the old woman every two weeks, like clockwork, leaving me free to explore the empty school on the intervening days. There were classrooms with puddles of rainwater on the floor, pale math problems still unsolved on a chalkboard, maps hanging slack, displaying outdated borders. In a utility closet, hidden under a tarp and an entanglement of classroom desks and chairs stacked clear to the ceiling, I found a battered honey-colored upright piano on wheels. I didn’t know how to play the piano, but I had time to learn, so I extracted the instrument and cajoled it across the courtyard of gravel and grasses that made up the clearing, my back to the frame, my legs hard as steel. I searched the skies. No low planes. No helicopters. The valley was a bowl of purple dusk by the time the piano and I reached the cabana.

I played a few muffled, out-of-tune notes, my first ever on a piano. There was an upright in my uncle’s apartment—where my brothers and I had moved, thinking we’d be safer—but the lid to my uncle’s piano was always locked. My aunt had the key, and she had left my uncle the previous month to live overseas with someone from the orchestra. My uncle was a poet and worked as a cook in a hospital canteen. Though it wasn’t talked about, I suppose his job had something to do with my aunt leaving—his lack of success, the burden of humility and poverty his art required that she didn’t wish to share. The piano sat sealed and unplayed as we looked for the key, our search ending the afternoon when my brothers and I were taken away while my uncle was at work. The men asked us how old our uncle was, and we said he was very old, with a limp, and only when we told the truth—that he was a poet—did they became uninterested and allow us to leave him a note. One of the men, with a smile on his face, wiped his ass with the note and left it on the piano’s lid, the folded paper still peaked in the shape of the man’s thick fingers.

The morning after I brought the piano out from the school, a small plane came over the mountains behind me. It went down into the valley as I radioed in a report, the plane soon so far away that it entered the rising wisps of mist, the mist curling at its wingtips and then swallowing it. Nothing for weeks, and then I bring the piano out and a plane arrives. I knew it was superstitious to think there was a connection, but superstition helped make sense of the order of things at that time.

One morning, while picking out a melody on the keys, I saw some of the keys on the piano depress themselves, silently. I felt sick, knowing I had broken something inside the instrument. The day before, I had discovered that slamming my foot against the left, soft pedal caused all the keys to jump about as though possessed, the piano thundering. Now, though, the keys moved slowly and silently on their own, like the piano was twitching in a dream. When it began to play something close to a melody, I stepped back from the piano. The notes gathered into frenzied playing, and then I laughed, realizing it was a player piano. I took off the front panels to look at the mechanism. The music stopped. I gazed about at the insides: the clay-colored hammers and the pale shaped wood, the multitude of tiny springs and rectangles of red and tan felt, a dead mouse lying on its side over some of the lower registers where it must have tumbled along with every note, temporarily reanimated.

It wasn’t a player piano.

“It’s the wind,” the old woman said when I told her. “Happens.”

The piano was quiet for many days. When I knew my two weeks were up, I pushed the piano back inside the school, leaving it in the hallway this time, near the door, then sweeping the courtyard of our tracks. The men arrived late that morning with supplies: the same sacks and cans for the old woman, a fresh battery for my radio. They said I did good, radioing in about the plane. I could see a half-inch of sunlight between thumb and forefinger.

When they were gone again, I pushed the piano back outside. Once under the cabana, the keys depressed and then made tones, and then, within the hour, were playing with such savage complexity that it was like two or three or maybe even more pianists were all trying to play different pieces at the same time.

Obviously, the piano was possessed. Or, if it was the wind, then the wind was possessed (but there was no wind). I brought the old woman out to see it and she no longer said it was the wind. By her lack of surprise, I could see that she already knew about the piano. Maybe she had been the one to put it in the closet and trap it under all the chairs and desks. She put her forearms down flat across the keys so that most could no longer depress and strike the strings. She spoke soothing words until even the keys that she couldn’t reach stopped playing.

She told me to put it back where I’d found it. “Someone will hear it out here.”

But I couldn’t budge the piano; it had grown heavy. It began to play again the next morning, with the birds. I thought of all the dead pianists I knew, which weren’t many, and I asked if it was possessed by the spirit of Mozart or Beethoven or Bach. The piano played a little trill after each name, and the same trill to other questions, and though I didn’t get an answer as to who it was possessed by, I was able to ask it (or one of its players) questions that could be answered with a yes (a simple chord) or a no (the trill). I arrived, arduously, and if it can be believed, at the knowledge that the piano held the souls of seventeen pianists, or—from the sound it made—perhaps more like one pianist and sixteen others who kept pressing down on the keys to thwart them. When I say souls, it could as well have been an angel among demons.

I tried to find out more, but it is hard to arrive at clear answers from a semi-cooperative piano. When I was close to learning something—for example, which year it thought it was, now—the playing would grow wild and chaotic and I could not help but imagine that the other sixteen were fighting the pianist, grabbing them around the chest and pulling them from the keyboard, or else slamming their own fingers against the keys, imitating the trills and chords so that every answer was a meaningless yesnoyesnoyesno.

“What’s this?” the two men said, seeing the unmovable piano the next time they came up to the site. The piano was silent.

“A potato,” I said. They didn’t like my attitude and hurled the new battery at me, striking me in the chest and leaving a dull ache and a bruise that would last for weeks.

“You’ll make your own meals now,” they said. “And bury the woman.”

“She’s dead?”

“She’s been dead for days. Didn’t you know?” They laughed at me. “Good. Keep your eyes on the skies.”

After they left, I crept into the kitchen and saw the sacks and the cans the men had left. The old woman was lying on the floor on her side, drained of color. They hadn’t killed her. She was stiff and holding a knife, and on the counter above her was half an onion sitting on a cutting board that also held what she’d already chopped, all of it browned, as though it had made it to the pan and back again.

I dug a grave on the far side of the building, out of sight from the cabana. Then I dragged her out on a tarp. I saw that my hole wasn’t large enough, so I dug some more with her just lying there beside me, her hand still gripping the knife. I covered her face with one corner of the tarp and kept it in place by puncturing it over her knife, though the knife was sharp and the tarp ripped free not long after. I buried her, her wide dilated eyes looking up at me dully through the veil of pale fine roots that reached from the jungle beyond.

The piano was playing wildly when I returned to it. The men hadn’t mentioned hearing it down in the valley, so I didn’t mind if it played, though after a while I grew tired of it. I held my arms down across the keys and tried to speak soothingly to it, like the woman had done. I asked if there was anything I could do for them and received the trilled reply of no. It began playing through the night. I told them I would destroy the piano unless they were quiet,and at once the cacophony stopped and then an answer came first from the pianist, then crudely, elsewhere on the keyboard, by the others. Those insistent chords. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Destroy us.

At first light, I removed the front boards and bars and took apart the keyboard, disassembling the mechanism for each key and laying the parts down in the courtyard in tidy piles until I could access the strings, and then I snipped those free and placed them with their corresponding parts. The piano was silent the entire time I worked, as though it had been sedated for surgery. I could hear the wind through the trees and the birds and the far-off sound of a plane at high altitude that I didn’t need to report.

I carved trenches near the old woman’s grave, and buried each key with all of its parts and strings until there were eighty-eight graves side by side. I found, in digging the graves, other, older graves. But not so old that the bodies were down to dry bone. I rubbed a stone across eight-eight other stones to make the pale symbol of a cross on each, then placed the markers at the head of each narrow grave, and then also where I had found other bodies. I buried the desiccated mouse, too—unmarked, as nature prefers.

It was terribly quiet with the piano now just a shell of wood around a cold metal plate and sound board. I was lonely with the old woman gone, too. She and I had never talked much, but there had been comfort in knowing there was someone nearby.

The two men arrived again with supplies. I waited for them to throw me another battery, then shot them both with the pistol I’d found hidden on the kitchen counter, under a skillet lid. I should have had more bullets to make it easier, but the men’s guns held no ammunition at all. What little money they had in their pockets, I took. Then I dug two more graves, or started to, deciding instead to put both bodies into the first. I climbed into their jeep and drove it around the buildings, learning how to steer and brake and give the jeep gas, all of which were more temperamental actions than I expected them to be.

While I was practicing, a formation of five attack helicopters flew overhead and into the valley. Instead of radioing it in, I followed with the jeep down the mountain road. At one swing I could see flashes, then heard distant explosions. I reached the valley in late afternoon. Whatever men had worked there were gone, the smoke blue as exhaust and smelling like singed damp. I called for my brothers, but heard nothing and continued on in the jeep, the trees giving out to hills of hard, dry, vaguely recognizable land. I had my freedom, but did not yet feel free.

The gas ran out at about the same time as the light. I continued on foot through the darkness. My hands were blistered and my arms were exhausted from all the digging. I hitchhiked, then took a bus from a town large enough for a stop. I watched the landscape unfold at dawn through the bus’s scuffed windows, the light gleaming through the barbed cactus and granting them halos. Late in the evening, I was home again.

I was the last of my brothers to return. There was a little shrine in the entry of our home with my framed school photo and my new boxing gloves on one side and my school award for singing on the other. I had forgotten I knew how to box and sing during my seven months in the jungle. I almost didn’t want my mother and aunties and sisters to take down the shrine. What had been reverential for them was referential for me; I liked seeing the simple, tidy portrait of who they thought I was, just when I was most uncertain of who I’d become.

The next day, we all visited my uncle. His wife had returned and was living with him again. The piano was unlocked and tuned, and she played something light, then something boisterous. The improbability of all of us arriving home safely was attributed to the work of our mother and sisters and our aunties and of everyone not only in our church, but all the churches in the parish: hundreds of beseeching prayers and promises and bargains made to God and the Virgin and the saints who had listened and interceded on their behalf. Our improbable safe return was a miracle.

Why break a heart that someone else has already broken? I said nothing of the angels and demons in the piano and of their anguish, or of my having killed two men with the intent of doing it quickly, but the act ending up being slow and requiring me to dig up a length of piano wire. I did not share these things which were perhaps just as necessary for my safe return as divine protection. Nor did my brothers share details of their own paths back home as we sat there in my uncle’s place, listening to his wife play the piano, all of us sitting around drinking and grinning, pretending then, and in the years to come, that nothing bad had happened to any of us.

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