The Flute Player
Another Monday: The new teacher was still nervous. He walked through the field on his way to school and saw a fox, mottled white and black. An omen, he was sure. But of what?
His notes were tucked under his arm; they grew sweaty. Patches of sweat on his white shirt. Why hadn’t he worn an undershirt? His chest hair itched like a bird’s nest rubbing against his skin. Everything seemed louder than usual. A crow in a tree harangued him. Another omen? Lately he had been hearing things. It made him afraid to be alone. He quickened his pace, eyeing the orange and purple wildflowers as if they might speak.
Every day, he stood at the front of a large classroom. Every day, he lectured, the heat from the students’ computers scorching his face. Every day, the students yawned and typed up his words or checked their email or surfed the web. Watching them from the podium, his words faltered. The teacher felt helpless. Under his belt, deep in his stomach, in his liver, his kidneys, his spleen, an emptiness was growing.
In the mornings, he tried to meditate. That morning he had creakily sat down on a couch cushion, clumsily crossing his stiff legs. His head had felt like a balloon, a bag of marshmallows, a clump of wax. He lit a candle and rang the bell—one, two, three times. Closed his eyes and waited for peace. But he couldn’t feel it. He smelled a roast burning in his childhood. Heard his fourth grade teacher saying he was too fat to play soccer but was needed for tug-of-war. His father giving him a book on trains rather than a flaxen-haired doll for his fifth birthday. A colleague’s cutting remark over lunchroom donuts. The thoughts went on and on. He was sure a fly was crawling up his arm. He tried to focus on his breath. In. Out. In. Out. He became aware of the heaviness of his belly resting on his thighs and felt a surge of self-hatred. He tried to breathe through it, as the meditation books instructed. His stomach rumbled. He wanted to eat an omelet. Some cereal. Buttered toast with strawberry jam. But his breath. His breath. In. Out. He couldn’t concentrate. He grabbed the bell, but then abruptly set it down and stalked to the kitchen. Hurriedly, he made an omelet. But after he cooked it, he couldn’t eat.
At school, he sat sweating at the round table in the small room with his colleagues and unwrapped and wrapped his sandwich, picked up an almond and set it down, shined an apple on his sleeve and examined it as if to take a bite. But he couldn’t eat.
The emptiness was growing, growing. He felt his ribs were hollow, the bones of his wrists weak when he wrote on the whiteboard. His students’ arms like exclamation points in the air.
On his walk home, he heard music in the field. Flute. Not the bleats and hesitations of a high school student—but a real melody, rich like a broth. He looked around: There was no one. Was the flute player behind a tree? Had a crow acquired the skill to master this complex instrument? Was the fox tricking him again? His mind raced, zig-zagged, and stalled.
The music was high-pitched, clean like a brook flowing through a forest that hadn't yet been poisoned. Setting his teaching notes and lunch sack on the ground, the teacher lay down and stretched out like a starfish. The sun poured on his face; the grass itched through his clothes. He thought of his students, their stressed and pimply faces, their young affairs, their phones and their photos, their plagiarized essays. He thought of his 9:30 class: Johnny, who worked nights as a janitor and snored quietly in the corner; Bianca, who painted her nails while taking notes by hand; Raoul, whose video game prowess was legendary among his peers. Li Young. Mathew. Tran. Esmeralda. He held each face in his mind.
Now he could feel the emptiness more clearly. It wasn’t just in his organs or his bones. It had a heartbeat. It surged through him. The sun beat down. Rivulets of sweat ran down his face and into his ears. He could hear the blood rushing there. The flute song twirled through the air like a light golden thread.
He tried to focus on his breath. The flute player felt very close, just behind the nearest tree. The song hovered over him. He was no longer sure whether or not he was imagining it.
Again, he pictured his students’ faces. Had he ever really seen them? Some looked surprisingly old, like wise mothers. His own mother had bathed him, had fed him, but had never listened to him. His father was always grimly leaving for work or returning. He had become a fat child without ever knowing why he was so hungry all of the time. In school for years he had been silent, until university, when he spoke often, interrupting other students and ingratiating himself with his professors, always trying to make the smartest points.
The teacher heard the flap of a crow’s wings, a chastising caw. His face burned; his shirt was limp with sweat. He dared not open his eyes for fear the sun would scorch his vision. He listened. He could no longer hear the flute. He listened harder. Nothing. Just the rustling of leaves in wind, small sounds of life in the grass. A crow’s caw. Another. He heard the flap of their wings as they glided close. Heard them land, one after another, on the tree behind him.
Jen Currin lives on unceded Coast Salish land (New Westminster, BC) and has published four collections of poetry, including The Inquisition Yours, which won the 2011 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry; and School (2014), which was a finalist for three awards. Jen's poems and stories have been published in many journals and anthologies. An instructor of creative writing at Kwantlen University, Jen also teaches community workshops and grows vegetables in her community garden plot.