On the morning the boy went missing, a fisherman waded into the river. He took a pinch of tobacco out of his pouch and sprinkled it over the water. Vodník, he said, here is your tobacco. How about a fish today? He cast his line, which gleamed silver in the dawn, and reeled it slowly in. He felt something as he did so, a pull that was stronger than the usual current, yet it was not a bite. A snag. He looked out to where his line punctured the water, thought he saw a light just below the surface. But then the feeling passed, and so did the light, and the line came in with its usual tension.
When the boy did not come to breakfast, his mother went to wake him. The bed was empty, and very well made. He must have learned by watching her. The window was closed, but not locked. She called his name, it hammered through the house, hit the walls. His father went outside to search the cold morning for him. But the morning did not yield the boy. They could only conclude that the boy had been stolen, someone must have stolen him, for he was a mostly good, obedient boy and would never run away.
Everyone in the village gathered for the noon recital, but the boy did not show up to play for them. Everyone, even the officials, felt their chests cave in on their hearts when it was clear the boy was not going to show up and there would be no music today. They waited until there was only enough time to return on the dot, then went back to their factory jobs along the river. They filed along the banks in their gray, squarely cut uniforms like hollowed-out ghosts. The workers were united in their grief.
First they saw his long, white fingers. The fingers alone rose above the scum of the water, then the hand, then the arm, the shirtsleeve plastered around it like a strange second skin. Before their eyes, the entire boy then rose to the surface, seemingly light, like the froth of the water, floating on a cloud of waste pulp from the paper mill.
They were gypsy children who first saw him, and some helped to pull him onto the bank while others ran to get help. The men came running, slid in the muck to the boy’s side and tried to revive him. But he had already died before they pulled him out, pale and fishlike, his blond hair snagged with the filth of the river.
They stretched a length of cloth across the bank. They lifted the boy into it. They heaved him up, one man for each corner, and, after some hesitation, began the long walk to the police station. Nobody ever went willingly to the police, but this boy was not theirs, and it was the only thing to do, so they walked right through the center of the village, up to the old castle where the police station now was.
It was a long way, too, because the gypsies lived far outside of the village in a place where no one lived. Villagers stopped and stared, some crossing themselves, then looking around to see if anyone saw them cross themselves. They stood away from the gypsies and the dead boy. The gypsies might curse them with some terrible affliction. But as they passed by them, they felt they had already been cursed, because in the cloth was the boy who had kept the town from dying. And the boy was dead.
Up the cobbled streets, up the steps to the castle, taken over by police when the former owners were arrested. The gypsies held out the cloth. The police looked in. Yes, he was the one who went missing all right, the boy everyone gathered and waited for, the boy who played piano. And now he was dead, delivered by gypsies, swollen like a washed-up carp, gunk of the river all over him.
They looked at the boy, and they looked at the gypsies. They looked at their blue tattoos and dark skin and long, dark hair. Then they handcuffed them and took them into custody.
The boy’s mother collapsed over his body; the boy’s father pried her by the shoulder so she would stand upright. She wailed into the afternoon, she would wear black forever, because that’s all they were now, a series of black marks in open files, with no boy to redeem them with his piano playing, nothing to redeem them, and they would have to bear everything on their own. And it was all because of the gypsies, she cried, who must have heard of the boy’s playing and wanted the village to pay for how the village drove them out and forced them to live in vermin-infested buildings by the paper mill. It was simple: They stole the boy and held him under the water until his soul went out of him. They held out the porcelain cup, and when his soul entered it, they snapped the lid shut.
The four gypsy men were held on suspicion of murder, and the police raided the run-down tenement, broke open doors and turned the rooms inside out looking for what they called evidence. The children ran out into the woods and hid in the brush, as they knew to do and had done many times. The police ransacked, spat on floors and threatened people with their clubs, and then they went away again.
He was white and beautiful and perfectly formed. He had a strong chin and fine blonde hair and lips that curved in all the right places like a sculpture. He was sixteen years old. He could play as well as Shostakovich. Authorities were clearing the way for him, set his parents’ files aside in a pile that meant grace. But now there was no reason to keep them there, unless they could come up with another talented boy.
Now the village would have no more music. Now there was nothing to brighten the gray, crumbling buildings or clear away the factory grime. Nothing to repair all that had fallen into ruin. His piano playing had colored the village to the splendor it must have once been, or even beyond it. Now the river was full of brown foam from various factories, which it had been for many years, but it was only now they noticed it and saw how dirty the village had become.
And then, at night, they heard singing from afar, a plucking of strings that hovered over them as sure as the stars in the night sky—an insult. The gypsies had music, but they did not. The gypsies had stolen their music from them.
When the boy was alive, he was always playing piano, and even during his lessons or his practice scales windows were flung open wide to catch a note or two or whole stretches of them, so hungry was the village. He practiced for recitals, and the recitals were practice for an annual concert in the old hall that was dusty and plain, for it was a concert hall for the worker, and the worker needed no adornment or comfort or cleanliness. Only ears were necessary, ears and a still-beating heart and blood in the veins.
The boy was necessary. Everyone depended on the boy for their happiness—or, if not happiness, for that was a strong word, then for their survival. He made life feel like it had some meaning, made their day-to-day worth it somehow, and the boy felt this pressure coming down upon him like a thousand hammers. He could hardly bear to see the faces in the crowd tilting up when they saw him at the edge of the curtain, moving with him like sunflowers to the sun as he walked to center stage, bowed and sat down on the bench. Their faces were empty, wanting to be filled. He felt the pressure of their gaze at his back, his head, his hands, wanting such hope, as though he could save them and as though they expected him to, and when he put his fingers on the keys, he felt that emptiness reverberate in the body of the piano, hammers hitting strings only because they were told to hit them, the keys fragile as the shells of eggs under his fingers, and the notes, to him, were broken with the weight of everyone trying to clamor onto them.
It was easy to dream of another world. One far beneath this one, so far that the waters ran clear, where he would not be able to hear music, nor see another empty face ever again. He hadn’t much time for daydreaming but he did it every chance he got, usually walking from his house to his teacher’s for the lesson, along the stone wall that contained the river. Below the lackluster surface that was gray with foam and the vague reflections of buildings there would be something that opened and closed like a door, and there he would enter, there he would remain while the door snapped closed as to not allow any part of the world above to follow him.
Thus the waters would remain clear. And sound would be simply listening, with no notes to fill up what should be pure.
Maybe it should have surprised him but did not that one day he saw the Vodník by the river. The boy was walking towards home after his lesson, his mind full of clear water, when the green man came into his sights. The Vodník was below the stone wall, at a curve in the river, sitting on a rock, smoking a pipe. The boy climbed down and sat beside him. The Vodník smiled as if he expected this, but went on smoking without a word. The boy took in the water creature, whom he only knew from children’s books and fairy tales. Sometimes the Vodník did very bad things, and sometimes he did very good things. It was hard to tell from storybooks how he really was. Either way, the boy wasn’t afraid, for he felt he knew the Vodník and the Vodník knew him.
The creature had a body like a man. He was the color of moss, and had gills like vents on either side of his neck. His hands were like a frog’s, webbed together and opaque when he stretched them open to adjust the pipe in his mouth. The boy was quite taken by the fingers. He held up his own hand, pale but solid and with each finger separate. He said to the Vodník, If I had hands like yours, I wouldn’t be able to play the piano.
The Vodník took the pipe from his mouth. Oh, you could still play, he said. Music doesn’t come from your fingers. Music comes from here. And with the stem of his pipe he tapped the boy on the chest.
The boy looked at the place where the pipe stem touched him, which was his heart, which was beating below the layers of skin and muscle and the cage of bone. He knew it was beating because he could feel it.
The Vodník said, Ah! So that’s it. He tapped the ash out of his pipe. Music for you comes from somewhere else.
The boy said, What’s it like down there? He pointed to the river.
Oh, said the Vodník, it’s the most beautiful world you can imagine. Even better. It’s clear and green and full of silver fish that glow like lamps when you wish it.
The boy said, Why do you come to the surface, if it’s so nice?
To remember, young man. The Vodník turned to look at him, his eyes silver and bright. Once I longed to be one of you. A very short once. Look at this place! It’s disgusting. I have to remind myself of that from time to time. And also, the Vodník continued, pocketing his pipe in his waistcoat, then studying his webbed hands, it’s the only place I can get tobacco.
He flicked his eyes at the boy. An offering of tobacco, he said, and I will always come to the surface.
The Vodník eased himself into the water, legs first, slipping into the brown foam. The boy felt his heart seize up and solidify into a rock.
Vodník! he cried.
The water creature turned. Yes, boy?
I’ve read that—is it true that you drown people?
The Vodník smiled at him. Only those who want to be drowned. And besides, drowning to you means something different than it does to me.
The meeting with the Vodník made the boy late upon returning home. His father was pacing and furious. How dare their own son scare them so! It was cruel of him to disappear that way, he’d made his mother ill and his father had almost gone to the police station. Imagine! Him, walking up the castle steps and declaring the boy missing, while his marked-up file lay just an arm’s length away, as though he were turning himself in, volunteering himself for a work camp in Siberia. And so his father got out the strap and turned the boy, who was taller and heavier than his father, over his lap and whipped his backside until his mother put herself together and slapped his father in the face and yelled—Do not harm the boy! For he had forgotten in his rage that the boy must be able to play for the sake of them, and that meant his backside be in good sitting order.
The father cried out in horror. He dropped the strap. The boy unbent himself and stood to his full height. He held out his hands. Here, Father, he said. Take your strap to my hands. He held them right under his nose. Break all the bones inside them, Father.
His father began to tremble, then shake, then he grabbed his boy’s hands and kissed them.
The boy had spent days and days collecting a certain amount of tobacco. It had to be enough to evoke the Vodník without fail, it had to be an overwhelming amount. So he pinched from his father’s stash, and some he bought and said it was for his father, but mostly he stole it, saved it in a little pouch he wore close to his skin.
When it was enough, he rose in the dark of the earliest morning. He dressed in his recital clothes. He opened the window without any sound and dropped through it. He walked to the bridge, where he leaned over the wall and dumped the entire pouch into the water and waited.
The boy saw a light beneath the dark water, then one webbed hand. The Vodník appeared, happily stuffing his pipe.
You must’ve really wanted to see me, young man, he said, looking up at the boy, who was sitting on the wall of the bridge. He lit the pipe and puffed. The boy could see the gills in his neck gasping for air, then collapse finally around his neck, laying flat. He turned on his back, floated in the water, gazing at the stars. He turned so he could see the boy’s face, which glowed down at him like the moon.
I know what you want, the Vodník said.
The boy gazed down into the Vodník’s silver eyes.
Let’s go, then, my boy. And from the water the Vodník brought out a porcelain cup and lifted its lid. It glimmered and shone like a lamp. Come to me, said the water creature.
The boy stood and leapt from the bridge. He felt the air push into all of his pores, up his nose, in his eyes and ears, and before he hit he took a breath so deep it would last until the end of time.
The boy had gone missing and then he had been found dead. The fisherman had not been arrested for his hook snagging the boy’s hair. The paper mill was not shut down on the account of the dead boy floating in its bilge, nor was the brewery, which the boy had passed by also, nor were any of the factories on the river, who undoubtedly had their hand in the boy’s death, if only because his body passed by them as it made its way downriver, to get caught in the still water that pooled behind the decrepit building where the gypsies lived.
The gypsies alone were at fault.
After they delivered the dead boy, and the four men were arrested, a mysterious fire occurred. The building easily went up in flames, and the fire department took their time to finally arrive and sink their pumps into the river and spray over the fire and try to pull out those still inside. Some had gotten out in time, but some had not. The building crashed down and down with it crashed several bodies glowing hot like coal, the building’s structural beams shot through with fire.
The day after, when there was nothing left but ash, those who’d lived gathered the children and made the long walk to the police station. The villagers stood away from them, afraid, hid in doorways and turned their gazes to the river. The gypsies set up camp in the first courtyard of the castle. They demanded the release of their men, for they did not kill the boy. And nobody was leaving until their men had been returned to them.
Nothing would get them to leave. Not the threat of death, not even death itself. The police would spray bullets into the courtyard, but the gypsies would not leave. They didn’t run, and they didn’t duck for cover. They watched the police, unmoved.
Then, at night, they sang. They no longer had instruments to pluck, nothing to play, but they still had their voices, and they raised their voices to the night sky and up to the dead blond boy and to their men trapped in prison cells, and to all those who had gone up in flames.
The evening before the boy went missing, he played for his piano teacher. He played with everything he had left in him, because his piano teacher, she alone, was the only one who didn’t look at him with an empty face. She expected much from him but did not expect him to save her, only that he play well, and that he keep improving. He had long since outgrown her, but went to her because she was the best there was in the village; she had played for Stalin. He played for her alone, she who had died inside long ago, so that she would remember him, and when he was done, he saw her eyes had glassed over like the clear water he daydreamed of, and he stood, and he closed the lid of the piano for the last time.