The sun blazed down upon the rice fields from high in the summer sky. A few small sprouts budded upon the ground, sprinkling the black mud with green. Cicadas hummed aggressively, and the waterwheel creaked and groaned gently. The splash of water as it fell upon the wheel rivaled the clatter of the farm mule’s bridle and harness. Bayani sat a moment under the cool shade of his chestnut tree, his eyes closed as he listened intently for the song of nature. He sighed, unable to piece together the melody the way his father could, and picked up the pipa beside him. While Bayani could not understand the sound of nature, he knew the sound of terrarian well.
Bayani’s skillful hands plucked at the strings of his instrument while his eyes watched the dirt road that stood about ten feet before him. His music flowed through the air, mingling with the symphony of the cicadas and the waterwheel. Farmers occasionally passed by, some nodding towards him as they shouldered their heavy water buckets. Despite his being of the lowest social class, Bayani knew his presence was important. The sound of his pipa acted as a balm for the weary hearts of the farmers. It lifted their spirits and renewed their determination, making their burdens feel a bit lighter.
That was why Bayani enjoyed playing his pipa. He loved witnessing the transformation his music caused in the expressions of the farmers. The tired and distraught expressions on their faces, dirty and dark from sweat and mud, gave way to a sense of peace and resolve. They found comfort in the melody. Their footsteps synchronized with the rhythm and carried them with just enough extra strength to get them safely home and in bed.
Through his music, Bayani felt a profound connection with the people around him. He loved knowing that he could make a difference in their lives, however small it may seem. It was not just about entertaining them; it was about touching their souls and lifting their spirits during moments of hardship. His music was not just a skill or a hobby, just as his father so often said. It was his way of contributing to the well-being of the village. It was his way of existing in the broken and crippled body he was born with.
As the sun started to sink low into the horizon, Bayani tied his pipa across his back and hoisted himself up. He placed his crutch under his arm and hobbled down to the road. The walk to the village would only take a healthy terrarian maybe ten minutes, but for Bayani, it was a long and grueling hour. Sometimes his crutch would slip upon a pebble, and he would fall to the ground. The pain of his spill would take a while to subside, leaving him helpless until he could gather strength to rise again and continue on. The village lanterns were already lit by the time Bayani arrived at the gate.
“You are a bit late today,” Jiahao, the gatekeeper, stated as he filed away Bayani’s papers. His curved horns reflected the torchlight like the moon reflected the sun.
“Yes, I am sorry,” the boy answered as he signed his name. “The road was slippery today.”
“I will have Bao know. He usually makes sure the road is safe for you to travel on.”
“Salamat—I mean, thank you.”
“I know, Jiahao. But Father still speaks it to me, so I forget sometimes.”
Jiahao sighed. “Be thankful that it is only me. Will I see you tomorrow?”
“I have not yet decided.”
“Very well then. May your weary soul rest tonight.”
“To you as well.” Bayani tightened the sash that held his pipa in place and proceeded on. The streets were settling into the dim light of the lanterns. A few stray cats meandered through the shadows, peering at the crippled boy before darting away into the darkness. Some bonfires were lit to help keep away ghosts and warm the soldiers who watched through the night. Laughter and murmurs drifted from the fires, the terrarian men silhouetted by the light. The wind chimes that hung from the apothecary swayed in a soft breeze, but they did not ring.
Finally, Bayani turned into his road. Merchants and artisans lived upon this street, and Bayani lived all the way at the end with Akihiko, his father. They both were bards, having inherited their trade from their ancestors. Outside their home, a pile of wood shavings always sat beneath the bench where Bayani and Akihiko whittled out a new pipa. Because his fingers were still young and nimble, Bayani often had the task of threading new strings. Usually, he used bamboo fiber, but occasionally, he could work with silk. He much preferred the sound of silk strings, and he wished someday to be so successful that all his pipas had them. For now, the bamboo would have to do, and the wealthy noblewoman could enjoy the silk.
Beside their work bench, Akihiko kept a wooden display that held the designs for the instruments he made. While Bayani only knew the pipa, Akihiko could make and play the erhu, the guzheng, the hulusi, and the dizi. He promised to one day pass down his skills to his son. Until that day, Bayani progressed his skills on the pipa, learning the songs of old while also creating some of his own. He had learned to harmonize the instrument in his hand to his voice, and the townspeople especially enjoyed his music during the festivals.
Hobbling past their workshop, where a wooden slab waited with the shape of an erhu beginning to form, Bayani stepped out of the sticky night air and into the stifling heat of his home. Akihiko sat upon the mat, his body hunched over a single lamp as he strained to read the letter in his hand.
“May your heart always sing, Tatay,” Bayani greeted in Salita, his father’s tongue.
“To you as well,” Akihiko answered, also in the same language. He stood and helped his son down onto the mat. “Was the road hard today?”
“A bit. I fell a few times, and it was difficult to stand again on my own. I fear I will need a new crutch soon.”
“You are a growing boy. You will outgrow your crutch soon enough anyways. Every month or so, you will need a new one.”
“Tatay, teach me how you carve my crutches.”
Akihiko looked at his son sharply, studying the boy’s determined face. He rubbed the stump of his broken horn for a moment and stated, “I will teach you that after you finish the erhu to my satisfaction.”
“Yes, you will finally move on to a new instrument. I am pleased with your skills on the pipa.”
“Salamat, Tatay.” Bayani bowed as low as his body could muster, trying to express the depth of his gratitude. Akihiko said nothing as he handed his son a hard loaf of bread and returned to examining the letter. As the boy gnawed on the food, he watched his father intently, curious what engrossed his attention so. “Who is it from?” he finally asked.
“Gat Hirano Takashi.”
Bayani gulped. Lord Hirano Takashi was a general in the samurai army as well as the proceeding nobleman of the nearby area, which included the bards’ village. A personal letter from a man of such power to a lowly bard of little renown certainly called for close attention. “W-what does he say?”
“That his son Hirano Tomomi is close friends with my son Chen Bayani and has learned that I am skilled in music and stories. He wishes for me to make an instrument I am unfamiliar with and play it for his daughter, who is dying.”
Bayani waited a moment in silence, expecting a stern scolding but never receiving one. He slowly wondered, “You are not mad?”
“Mad that my son, born into the lowest class of society and with a crippled body, could overcome the social constructs and befriend the first-born son of the samurai general? That is not an easy feat, Bayani. You should cherish your friendship with Tomomi.”
The two sat in silence for a moment. Then the boy asked, “What instrument did Gat Hirano request?”
“He calls it a xun.”
“Did he describe it?”
“Yes. It is made of clay.”
“Oh.” Bayani continued to gnaw on his bread. He recalled the last time Akihiko attempted to use clay for an instrument. The wet mud would not obey the artisan’s will, and after many weeks, he had to abandon the project. At least this time, Bayani was skilled enough to keep food on the table while his father labored over the clay.
Akihiko set aside the letter and rubbed his eyes. “I will see Thaksin in the morning. His son has been bringing him more clay than he can use, so I am sure I can buy some at a cheap enough price.” He stretched out upon the mat and gazed up at his son, his diamond-shaped pupils reflecting the lamplight. “Did you hear it today?”
Bayani shuffled to his feet and hid his half-eaten dinner under a cup so the mice wouldn’t eat it. Then he lay down beside his father, and he could feel their tails interlock as they so often did at night. “No, Tatay. I could not hear it. I listened long and hard to the cicadas chirp and the wheel creak and the leaves rustle and the mule’s harness clatter and the water splash. But I could not hear the melody as you do.”
Akihiko placed a hand upon Bayani’s long, pointed ear. “Close your eyes,” he whispered. “Recall those sounds.”
“Do you hear it now?”
“No, Tatay,” the boy whispered back. He did not want to disturb his own trance as he listened to the summer’s day sounds.
“I think you do,” Akihiko mused. “You simply do not realize that you do.” He turned over onto his back and closed his eyes as well. Bayani watched him for a moment before mirroring his posture. “What about now?” Akihiko breathed. “What do you hear right now?”
Bayani strained his ears as much as he could. “I hear the crickets in their nests. The roar of the bonfires and the laughter of the watchmen. An owl’s hoot. An eagle’s wing. The hum of the fireflies as they drift about the night. The squeak of the mice as they attempt to eat my food. The groan of the house as it stands firm upon the ground.”
“Silence,” Akihiko suddenly interrupted. For a long moment, the two lay still side by side. Then the father began to hum, deep from his chest, his bass voice vibrating the air. Bayani hardly realized the sound came from his father, for it brought together all the night sounds into one harmonic song. His eyes snapped open as he realized what Akihiko meant by “the song of nature”, and he joined his tenor voice in.
Their voices drifted across the entire village. The watchmen paused a moment as they absorbed the music, its essence renewing their fortitude to stand firm throughout the night. In its soft and solemn notes, Bayani and Akihiko made clear that their village was something worth protecting, something small and quiet and peaceful. The song permeated into the sleeping minds of the villagers, causing their memories to mingle with it into a wonderful dream. Even as he fell asleep with the music still on his tongue, Bayani sensed his father wrapping his arms around the boy’s frail body, protecting him from the terrors of the night and warming him with the memories of peace.