At the Feet of the Martyred Soldier

At the Feet of the Martyred Soldier

Pablo Picasso, “Violin Hanging on the Wall” (1913)


The train is crowded, but at least the ticket inspector is nowhere in sight. He stands near one of the doors and leans against the frame. Cradling his cracked case, a backpack between his feet, another strapped tightly on, he pretends not to notice all the looks he’s getting. He feels the eyes sweep over his dusty greyed sneakers, poking inside the holes worn into the cheap fabric. His skin bristles when he knows that his ashen skin and dirty beard are being examined. He has become accustomed to the instant reproach of those around him, inured to the upturned noses and the careful avoidance of his gaze. If it weren’t for his grandfather, who had instilled in him the same bristled, stoic spirit, it would all be simply unbearable.

His stop is coming up. He picks up the other backpack and slings it across his shoulder. The handle on his instrument case is broken, so he tucks it under his armpit instead. The train shudders to a stop. As the doors open with a hiss, the statue – a memorial to a soldier who fell during the civil war in defense of the town – comes into view. The plaza is bathed in a pool of morning light and seven pigeons are pecking at the statue’s stone feet. Families have already claimed the four benches; children chase each other around the skinny trees. People steadily stream past, on their way to a late Sunday brunch or a lazy stroll through town. It is just as his grandfather said and the perfect place to make a few euros, even if it’s barely enough for a kebab. These days that is more than you could ask for. He makes his way to the station exit and jumps over the exit gates. He brushes off the expected stares of an older couple and steps out into the street. The summer has already baked the grass yellow, and the hot breeze makes the palm trees quiver like cruel needles. He adjusts the load he’s bearing and climbs the four stone steps to enter the plaza.

He relishes in the familiar crunch of dry earth below his feet and doesn’t mind the shard of pebble that’s been swept in. People in the plaza are beginning to look at him. He walks to the statue of the eternal soldier and, after patting it on the shoulder the way one would an old friend, sets down the backpack in his hand. He takes off the other one and puts it down. Its contents tinkle around inside when he moves it, and a brass-colored fork pokes out from the fabric. Families draw their children nearer. He sets the music case on the ground and opens it slowly. He pushes aside the many bouquets of flowers that have been placed at the soldier’s stone feet. He removes the violin and the bow and pushes away the instrument case. Remembering a trick his grandfather taught him, he throws in a few coins, Pa’ animar a la gente. He begins to play.

The violin is an old, melancholy thing, and its first notes are a sad harmony, as if recounting the first sad event of its life. He tucks its watermarked body deeper between his chin and shoulder and leans into the melody. It is a song that he wrote himself years earlier, after his grandfather had died. No one in the family really amounted to much and took instead to playing music for change to scrape by whatever meager living they could. Thirteen people and three generations stuffed into a one-room flat, the family always lacked money and food they made up in an unnatural talent for music. This, too, he had inherited this from his grandfather, and his father before him. That, and this spot next to the martyred soldier, the same place where his grandfather used to play the same violin. But people have only a vague memory of the old man, a recollection that erodes away with every passing afternoon.

Some of the women are staring at him but seem to be enjoying the melancholy melody. For a moment, seeing the gentle rustle of the leaves and smelling the faint aroma of roses make his tune seem out of place. Inexplicably self-conscious, he brings the song to an abrupt stop. The final, untuned, undisciplined note hangs in the air, as if betraying his secret thoughts. He bows quickly and his foot knocks over a bouquet of flowers. The white vase breaks the moment it hits the hot asphalt and the sunflowers it held lie limply, their brown irises staring up blindly at the clear blue sky. Panicked, he grabs them by their golden crowns and stuffs them back into what’s left of the vase. He leans it awkwardly against the base of the statue and, his hands shaking, walks back to his position. Out of the corner of his eyes he feels everyone in the plaza staring at him. And then, one by one, stroller by stroller, they start to leave.

He starts playing again anyway, this time that lively Vivaldi song that was his grandfather’s favorite. The energy that pulses through him with each note reminds him of the pulse of spring in every flower, that same pulse that now – at summer’s end – was fading quickly. With the thought, the pigeons flap skywards to beg for scraps elsewhere, and the melody is poisoned, and instead becomes a sad reminder of what was once a joyful memory. The musician is alone in the plaza, and the people streaming by pretend not to see him standing alone under the shifting shade, next to the rusted statue. And when the song comes to its end, the final notes come to rest softly on the stone ears of the soldier, and his alone.

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