A Penny for Your Music

By Keira Clements

          There was no compensation for the dead we did not bury. The city selected only the highest, most expensive souls, in their suits and dresses of pure gold. Everyone who did not meet our standards would be trampled by the masses as they strained to attain a peaceful grave. This was the nature of life in the city of fog. Silent death swept the streets. We heard his broom at every turn and we tried our best to ignore him. What we could not hear, we hoped would fade into the backdrop.

          I lived in one of many shabby apartments, my only possession besides the room itself being a saxophone that I carried with me everywhere I went. Playing this instrument was the only real talent I had, so I used it to collect pennies from mummies in the streets. Since I arrived here, I had been hoping to do better than they had with what they left me. My only way of storing my earnings was to keep them in a top hat I’d salvaged from a fence post. When the coin stash grew too large to handle, I simply dumped it out on the grey rug in my apartment.

          A hill of pennies. With this, I wanted to buy a second instrument— a violin, perhaps— but most of my money I was forced to supply for rent. Despite paying as much as I could, however, I still plunged despairingly into debt. It seemed the cycle would never end.

          One night, as I stood on the streets of this dying city, squeezing my heart into my saxophone, a man rode up in a carriage and paused to hear my music. He had on the most magnificent clothes I had ever seen. Two snow-white horses were bound to the large carriage, and they wore reins laced in emerald. The man tipped his hat to me and inquired as to whether I would be playing at any of the upcoming music venues. I told him no, I had nowhere to go and certainly no connections. 

          “By golly!” he cried out in response, clutching his hat to his chest. “But you’re the finest saxophone player I’ve ever seen!”

          He then asked me how much I’d be willing to accept to play at his next house party. Going for free was evidently not an option. I pointed to my hat and explained that however much could fill to its brim would serve me well for the week. He laughed as if I’d told him a joke.

          “We would have to roll the dollars into sand to fill that space,” the man said.

          I had never directly interacted with the upper class before. It seemed he had no regard for my situation, or perhaps that he had no awareness of the place I was in at all. His eyes glazed right over my tattered drapes like he hadn’t seen a thing. I recoiled a little, realizing he wanted to treat me like his own coddled elite. I told him I really didn’t need that much, I just wanted to play my music.

          “But surely, there must be something this money could get you.” The man opened his purse and presented an uncountable sum of dollar bills, more than I’d seen at once in my life. 

          I said I’d never held a violin, maybe he could help me purchase one. Again he laughed.

          “We’ll buy the whole band! Come on lad, take that rusty saxophone and hop inside my carriage. You don’t belong out there with the sharks.”

          As the whole situation unfolded, I was both elated and greatly afraid— elated because I might have the money to live for once, and afraid because he was aiming to rob me of the soul that I valued. This longing soul was what I’d blown through the brass all my life. A man who’d never faced trouble would only wrap a suffocating cloth around that soul. I knew well what I would be getting myself into if I did not reject his helping hand.

          To go or to stay— I hesitated at the foot of the carriage, knowing I was doomed either way.

Julianna Bustamante’s Lovely Dancing Bones