In Haversforth, in May 2017, people suddenly started killing themselves in large numbers. It was an odd thing when it first began. There was the suicide of Emily, cherubic adolescent, quiet and reserved, who spoke and was spoken to very little. Her death, jumping from a 12th story window to the pavement below, caused much sadness, making the rounds in the papers, and on social media, for a week until all was quiet again. Then came the suicide of Henry the electrician. In his 60s, Henry seemed jovial enough, and while he had many acquaintances, he had few close friends, living by himself, never married or with kids. A few townspeople connected the deaths and proclaimed loneliness the enemy, and community meetings were set up that no one attended and pretty soon everyone forgot. But then, in the third week of May, there were 5 suicides on Monday. This time it was housewives with loving husbands and children, men with excellent jobs, even a child of 9 years old. And on Wednesday there were 8 more. And by the fourth week of May there had been 40 suicides and the town was full of ghosts. The sounds of footsteps and cars were softer, horns were honked less, people looked down. The suicides continued. Hundreds upon hundreds died, in this small town, and no one knew why.
The Town Council convened in the fourth week of May to address the problem. “What is the source of this fatal anomaly?” they asked. A list of potential culprits was drawn up, and a strategy put in place to examine them. First, they looked to the reservoir. “Has our water been contaminated?” So they tested the water to the molecule against imported water and controls and found that nothing had changed. “Has our food been infected?” they asked, and tested the crops and cows and fowl and found nothing. The animals did not show any signs of illness. Next came social influences. “Are our teachers evil?” they asked and questioned and interviewed and investigated every person in whom was vested the authority to bring knowledge to others. Schoolteachers, priests, professors – all were found innocent. “Is it the internet?” asked a younger task force and set about searching for cyber-bullying amongst the townsfolk but again found nothing. The water and food were clean, teachers honorable, and community without any added hate. The council and town were left confused and full of sorrow, as every day more mothers, fathers, brides, and children died, at their own hands, without explanation.
In his small home, with a wood burning stove and smoke occasionally gusting out from its chimney, the song-maker Augustus sat. The other townspeople barely knew of him, seeing him occasionally at the grocery store or on one of his long meditative walks. He was a tall, reserved man, of uncertain complexion, usually wearing a long coat around his gaunt figure even in summer. His house was somehow central to the town and yet removed from it – on all sides he had trees and forest yet the path from his home to anywhere was no more than a one hour walk. In his home, Augustus wrote songs. And until May, his songs had been full of joy, for Augustus was full of joy. He had known lifetimes of love and had remembered it all, needing not another human but only the company of his piano and his memories. He wrote and sang songs all day and they gently shook the trees with delight, every leaf vibrating with the sound of joy and the air around it vibrating in turn – the birds perched on the trees picked up his melodies and hummed them to their lovers and so did the bees and the cats. And so did the people of the town. By the time his sounds passed from the piano to air to the animals it was not even perceptible to the human ear but was very much still there, reaching the minds of the townspeople, bringing them smiles without cause, and the desire to love and be loved. For many years Augustus wrote and sang these songs. But then in April something changed. Augustus became stuck, in a thought, in a bad dream, of a lover who had betrayed him, of a man he tried to murder, many lifetimes ago. The more he labored over these thoughts the more he became convinced that the woman he dreamt of was the only one he had every truly loved, in those thousand years of remembrance. And so he went deeply from joy to despair, regret, and anguish. He tried to search for this woman but she had perished hundreds of years ago, buried next to the man he despised, and Augustus’ voice turned raspy, his face slowly hardened with anger and pain. As May reared its head, he felt that existence itself, and his entire sequence of lifetimes, had been a colossal failure, and he sat down at his piano and in mourning and rage mashed at the keys, tears falling on ivory, hands alternately playing and balled into fists. The sounds were cacophonous, violent, disturbing. And yet they told a story, and this story escaped through his chimney, dispersing through the air, picked up in the mouths of the gulls and the ravens, swept into the minds of the townspeople. Not even a hum could be heard in the air but the anguish of a thousand lifetimes filled it, and this anguish penetrated the hearts and souls of all who surrounded Augustus.
Overcome with despair, the townspeople resorted to suicide. But Augustus did not contemplate it, for he knew that he would remember this life in the next, and thus suicide was only a balm. He played on, and more people died, until there was no one left in the town but Augustus, and he played until sorrow left his heart. He died outside his home, body slowly merging with the mud beneath it, and his house remained empty until many years later when a small boy wandered into it, and began playing a song.