Harp by Alex Wilson

We are always in motion. It’s how we breathe. We are always in song. It is life.

The wind on our strings vibrates us from crown to pedestal. It reverberates out beyond our pedestals. It propels us forward on the cloudsoil, and our paths renew the shape of our world. The cloud has never before taken the form it is now. A beat later, its new form replaces the old. Our cloud will never take this form again.

Nor will the wind conclude its journey at our strings, instead continuing and carrying our song to worlds beyond. It shares the music for miles, ultimately reaching and uplifting the dwellers of Constant Earth below, that they may one day ascend. The Libretti among us wonder whether we, too, once walked on such feet, on such rocksoil. Or whether the spirits of those below ascend to clouds even higher than our own.

Do they perhaps make the same inquiries of our worlds, their heavens? And is it this curiosity which has brought this colossal foot-walker, this dweller of Constant Earth, to our heights today?

His name is Goram. We know this because he shouts it to us between verses. Squatting on his mountain perch, he calls out:

“Sing for Goram! Music for Goram! Now!”

He is an upright mammal, adorned in malleable threads not so unlike our cloudsoil. The Libretti among us say he is too large to be human. But our own world and compositions alter with the singing, with time. Could not foot-walkers, too, swell with each step, or remake themselves with each exhalation? We ask what manner of thing Goram could be, if not human. The Libretti call him “giant human.” If there has ever been a constant in our world, it is that lyrics are the least important component of song.

We sing to Goram the verses of our history, of distant forms and travels. We sing the sacred refrains of our holidays. The Lebretti begin new histories about our assembly with Goram. We will sing new verses when we celebrate this day.

He is a most enthusiastic audience, though we find unsettling the precision of his own musical contributions. The alternating shouts of his name and the thunder of his palms percussing together generate a sound so unremarkable, so consistent, that we can often predict its color and character before its winds reach us.

The Timekeepers among us hesitate to call it rhythm. They know not why he would put such noises to the air when they cannot hope to surprise. His new – yet imitable – behavior is at once fascinating and frightening.

We have been singing for Goram for two days without interlude. He doesn’t understand that our songs have uses beyond his entertainment, nor that we need our songs for the goldsuckle harvest and for the nurturing renewal of the cloudsoil. It’s as though he hears and enjoys our songs without listening to them.

His persistent desires notwithstanding, our world cannot remain longer at such close proximity to Goram’s mountain. It is time for something new.

“Sing for Goram!”

We thank the giant human again for his audience. He stands on the highest rock on the tallest peak. He beats his chest. The Timekeepers cannot assimilate his fists into song. The Lebretti have more questions than text for this composition.

“Music for Goram!”

It is no easy task to divide our chorus. But as the rest of us turn our songs to the harvest, the Libretti remain on the edge of our world. They attempt to calm the giant human, before we break contact from him, from his mountain, forever.

They ask him of his culture, of his life. Are there more giant humans on Constant Earth below? Had Goram indeed heard our music? Is that what inspired him to climb to such height?

But Goram only snarls.


He leaps from the mountain to our world. Everything quakes. The brief dances of bird talons have not prepared us for the reception of such a mass.

Goram crushes the cloudsoil where he lands. Each subsequent step interrupts all semblance of meter, and consequently makes it more difficult to entertain him, as the harvest – as well as the renewal of that which he has impacted – demands more of our attention.

But puzzlingly, frighteningly, we cannot maneuver over his footprints. We cannot renew the clouds he has touched with constant flesh. He has scarred our once-resilient world. His footprints introduce a permanence where permanence has no place.

And he will not leave. He demands more song. He demonstrates displeasure by taking more steps.

The Timekeepers prepare a schedule. Smaller choirs sing for Goram in shifts. Others tend the cloudsoil. The Libretti search the stories of our fathers for a way to make malleable again the increasing amount of compacted cloudsoil. When they find such a remedy, it is as costly as it is necessary. And its performance divides our harmonies further.

It’s a compositional nightmare, full of dissonance and finity. We wonder what it must sound like below. What dweller of Constant Earth would wish to ascend to such clamor?

Goram’s senses are many. No longer is music enough to keep them satisfied.

He is particularly interested in touch. He tears valuable goldsuckle from the cloudsoil before it’s ripe. When it does not shine for him, as goldsuckle will only when fully ready for harvest, he tosses it beyond the side of the cloud. Its substance is forever lost to the cumulative, finite matter of our world.

His fingers grope at our strings, even as he expresses no displeasure with the more delicate performance of the wind. Three times now, his corporeal touch snaps a harpstring.

Death is permanent, but death is also change. We have dirges exploring this juxtaposition, following the cyclical refrain of our bodies as they fade into cloudmatter and sprout as new life with the goldsuckle. They are among our most beautiful variations.

But Goram becomes restless before these songs swell into airier movements. He steals the silent harps from their states of decomposition. He throws their bodies over the borders of the cloud, where only our music dares venture. The cycle breaks. The harps now belong to Constant Earth below.

This, too, is permanence. This, too, is change.

Our world is forever smaller.

We are still. We are silent. We hide on what renewable cloud we can find. We cannot renew. We will not survive.

We don’t wish to anger the giant human further, nor remind him that we still share the cloud. Our world is strangely stationary in the sky. One may peer each day over the same cloud border, and see the same mountain peak that led him to us. The Lebretti call it a gravemarker.

Goram fashions the four immovable walls of a castle for himself, using trampled cloudsoil for raw material. Perhaps this was his intention all along.

But there is hope. The Composers among us have produced a goldsuckle beanseed. We will plant it on immovable soil. It will grow with great speed and with great girth and with great height, offering us passage to a greater cloud. Any chorus above must be more powerful than Goram. They must be. They must come to our aid. Our song cannot perish.

I am neither Soloist nor Timekeeper, but, for my skill in threading difficult meters, I am chosen to carry the seed in my crown. I am to plant it in a now-permanent corner of our world where the trampled cloudsoil is dense, and where the beanseed’s stalk would be less obvious from Goram’s castle. The castle is in a steadfast location. So the stalk should never become closer or further away from the castle than at the moment I plant the seed. I trust the Composers to make sense of this.

It’s a risky mission. It’s a noisy mission. The giant human will snap my strings when he hears my movement. But I do not fear the death. I am one of many. I am dispensable. I fear only Goram’s cleaving me from my home, from the circle, as he will do after I become silent. It is as he has always done.

“Sing for Goram.”

Moving on my own, my song is shallow and tinny. The character of my sound makes me question my contributions to the Ensemble. I almost welcome the thundering percussion of the giant human’s boots, when they come.

I have not planted the beanseed. I have barely left the pitt where the remnants of our chorus hide, when I first hear Goram stomping from his castle. I have barely found an appropriate patch of compacted cloudsoil, when Goram bellows his unmusic before me. My song has barely time to falter.

I can plant the beanseed in front of him, but he’ll just snap my strings and dig the beanseed up again, out of curiosity or boredom. I can distract him with song, but when my gauche cadenza ends or when Goram tires of it, nothing will have changed. He’s too predictable an opponent; I know I will lose.

He points a meaty finger at the beanseed.

“What manner of thing? That in your crown?”

Yet this is the one thing I understand about the giant human: he comes from a world of permanence. He doesn’t change without reason. Not even music will move him.

I sing to Goram a false note: how the beanseed is baby goldsuckle. I tell him it is not ripe, and he will not want it.

Goram behaves as predicted. He snatches it from my crown. He holds it up to the sun, and, not finding it shiny enough to hoard, tosses it over the side of the cloud.

Perhaps the beanseed will land on good soil, if there be any good soil on Constant Earth below. Perhaps the beanseed’s stalk will lead another giant human to us, for surely Goram could not be unique in his predictable world. The clash of two giants is no less likely to doom us all than to rid our world of both of them. But I believe in impermanence. It has never been a choice before, whether to believe in it. Things must change. There is hope in something new.

“Now! Sing for Goram!”

I do not move. I’ve done what I can for my world. The giant frowns. I brace for the snapping of harpstrings.

But the giant human picks me up. He blows. His breath is hotter, wetter than the wind. My strings have never withstood such direct humidity. Their chime is barely audible. The sound neither satisfies nor displeases Goram.

He takes me with him to the castle. He doesn’t finger my strings, at least. He does not separate me from my world, at least.

His name is Jack. I know this because he whispers it to me as he steals ripe goldsuckle from Goram’s stores. Neither of these dwellers of Constant Earth can use goldsuckle for sustenance or reproduction, so I wonder at their fascination for such things.

Jack is smaller than Goram. I infer that he is a “non-giant human.” If our surviving Libretti were not in hiding, I would confirm this. At first I am curious how this foot-walker could be any match for Goram. Then it becomes clear Jack has no intention of facing the giant human at all. In fact, he only emerges from hiding when Goram sleeps – a predictable, recurring activity. And he makes every effort not to wake him.

Three times Jack has come to steal things. At each pass of my strings, he whispers with the same inflection:

“Come to Jack, honey. Jack’s gonna be your hero.”

Then he moves on to shinier substance.

I beg Jack to save us from the giant human. My tones are hushed, hemmed as I am from the wind by castle walls.

Jack looks at the sleeping Goram, then back at me.

“Jack likes life a lot, honey.”

It’s only when I am the shiniest treasure left in the giant human’s castle that Jack finally steals me, too. He carries me from the sleeping Goram. He threads his satchel strap between my pillar and lowest strings. He slings his satchel over his shoulder, and I press against his back.

Together we descend the beanstalk. Though this is not what I want, I am at least moving: if not toward freedom, then at least toward something new.

The wind has great strength in the open air below the cloud. It’s tempting to let it vibrate my strings. Constant Earth has never looked so inevitable as it does from this vantage. It’s a land divided by colors. The green will always be green. The brown always brown and the blue always blue. Is this the fate of my world as well?

I cannot leave my people so.

I have not the powers of persuasion to convince Jack to return to my world with some human chorus to save them. I have nothing except song – such that it is without accompaniment, without even the lyrics I too often dismiss as decorative.

So I sing. I sing for Goram. There, strapped to Jack’s back, my pedestal protruding past his hindquarters a hundred feet below my world, I welcome the wind. It flows through me.

My strings have never produced such volume. Jack curses at me, either at the unwelcome noise or at the unsteadying vibration, which for the first time has no cloudsoil at its base to absorb it. I wonder how and where the vibrations dissipate, if not in cloudsoil? I want to believe I’m renewing everything.

Goram wakes. My song lures him from his castle to the top of the beanstalk. Each of his footprints is an exit wound bringing my world and people dangerously closer to complete stillness.

But on I sing.

Rescue me, my song says. Save me from the terrible non-giant human.

Goram descends. By the time Jack and I reach Constant Earth, the giant is barely a mile above.

Jack sets me down on brown soil. I expect it to be poison to my pedestal. It’s hard and cold. But it neither kills me, nor moves with my touch. It doesn’t react to my pedestal’s vibrations. Like Jack, it’s indifferent to my coda.

With three chops of his axe, Jack destroys the beanseed stalk. Goram drops from his fantastic height. Jack saves my home by cleaving it from me forever. My song ends.

The wind is too minute on the surface of Constant Earth. It carries no song to me from the heavens. I myself produce no music except what human fingers choose to produce through me. This no great sound, nor is it often, nor is it dangerous. My harpstrings have never been so protected from injury.

Within a few days, my cloud above begins to shift in shape again. A few days more and it doubles its distance from the mountain peak.

My world has begun to heal. Within a week, it is gone from our part of the sky. If it ever returns, I neither recognize the shape of its cloudmatter, nor hear the evolution of its song.

In a month, Jack has squandered his goldsuckle stores on human females who refuse to accompany him without shiny compensation. Only his mother remains with him.

Jack trades me to a musician, who keeps me surrounded by wooden walls and a roof overcrown, a prison even more confining than Goram’s castle. It hides even the minute changes of the sky from my view. My new world is still and dark and unchanging.

The musician’s fingers are clumsy compared to the kisses of the wind. Her song is repetitive. Instead of creating something unique, she takes pains to eliminate variation so that each performance is identical to the one before. She stops and chides herself for every deviation. She begins again, over and over, until she’s purged from possibility anything new.

Far from home, far from my goldsuckle sustenance and song, I haven’t even the strength to plead with her to snap a string. It would take deliberate effort on her part. And even that would not return me to my place among the chorus.

The pads of her fingers are delicate enough that my strings crease them and callus them. Her music fades in seconds. The creases on her fingers, in minutes. Her calluses, in days. Though with daily precision and practice, some of her calluses remain with her, transforming the tips of her fingers into something else entirely.

This too is permanence. This too is change. I fear I will live a great while in this world without end.



Alex Wilson‘s work has appeared/will appear in Asimov’s, ChiZine, Weird Tales, The Rambler, and Shimmer.

Image: Harp, public domain.