The Pianist: Short Story

This story contains intense violence that may not be suitable for all readers.

"A scout was told by enemy soldiers that they’d shoot him as soon as he stopped playing the piano …"

He wasn’t paying attention to anything else; he was too busy trying to figure out just how out of tune the piano was and how much he would have to tighten every loose string to correct the pitch. Which didn’t spoil his enjoyment in the least. It was unfortunate that the first piano he’d seen since the war began was this shabby, but it was a real piano, and all the notes played sharp and clear like tiny daggers in the frosty air, and that was all that mattered.

The first clue he had of their presence was a sharp jab in the back. It drew blood, which became a wet trickle that streamed down his shoulders and pooled at the base of his spine. He instantly forgot his place in the song and the music stopped.

“Don’t turn around,” said a harshly accented voice.

Something cold brushed against his shoulders, and he stiffened.

“Keep playing,” the voice continued. “If you stop again, we’ll kill you.”

That accent.

He’d heard it once before, but only from prisoners of war - never from anyone he'd known personally. His friend was supposed to be guarding his back, but these voices weren’t theirs – where had he gone? What had happened to him?

His hands shook as he reached for the pale white keys. Warm orange light, perhaps from a lantern, reflected off the piano in his face and threw sharp shadows over his fingers. His vision blurred. His hands were cold, and he couldn’t reach his coat.

These soldiers wouldn’t listen to any pleading. He wouldn't have either. If he had learned anything from his six months as a soldier, it was that one should neither give nor expect mercy, because it was a recipe for getting stabbed in the back - literally. If he wanted to live, he had to impress these men, which meant he had to play. On and on, forever.

Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata" came to mind first. The tension in the room dissipated as the first notes rang out, clear and strong and confident. He’d been playing this song since he was a boy, as his mother had played it before him. Just as it had lulled him to sleep in the evenings, he prayed it would lull these soldiers, whoever they were, to leave him be.

“What’s your name?” a voice asked.

He paused and started to turn around. “It’s –"

“Don’t stop!” they warned in unison.

He slammed the next chord a split second off the beat, terrified of dying before he’d even started, and kept right on going as if he hadn’t stopped.

“Are you going to tell us your name?” they asked, and the shadows from the lantern light jumped up and down. They were trying to confuse him, or maybe, he imagined, they were simply laughing too hard to hold it still.

He kept his mouth pinched firmly shut and shook his head. He didn’t dare get distracted. A wrong note jumped out with glaring dissonance and earned him another sharp jab.

“Stop,” he mumbled, without breaking rhythm. “I can’t play if you do that.”

There was some mumbled agreement, and the lantern finally stopped moving – hung, he supposed, on a hook he’d noticed near the door when he came inside. His own shadow made it hard for him to see the keys directly in front of him, so he shifted to reach a lower pitch. The soldiers behind him suddenly silenced, probably expecting him to make a run for it, but he still didn’t look their way. His heart was racing so fast that he could feel it in his fingers, burning against the icy keys. But if he lost himself in the music, he could keep going forever. Nearly forever, anyway. His forever.

“It’s warm in here,” one of the soldiers said. The pianist's touch on the keys grew light as he listened attentively, trying to see if he could understand anything else. But the voice died away in a mumble of gibberish, a language the pianist didn't understand.

The soldiers seemed to be getting comfortable. Though he couldn't see them, except in the form of vague shadows reflected on the moldy, once-upon-a-time veneer piano, he could guess what they were doing from the noise they made. They stomped on the wood floor to melt the snow on their boots, exchanged what sounded like jokes in their incomprehensible native language, and chattered like they hadn’t a care in the world. He could tell that they never took their eyes off him, from the incessant shiver crawling up his spine. Maybe they wanted to see if he could last as long as they had. Maybe, he thought with a thrill of horror, they considered this payback.

Would they have acted any differently if he told them he was drafted, and not a soldier by trade? That he knew nothing about their country, except that it was cold and wet and miserable, and that the dirt was too frozen to dig trenches? That he didn't even know what he was fighting for? That he doubted anyone really knew?

His mind wandered as he tried to block out the sound of his own music.

He felt as if he’d trained all his life for this very moment. He could almost hear his piano teacher’s nasally voice: “You never knew just how useful piano would be, did you?” That was what he used to say, when his young student broke down in tears with chilly hands and bleeding fingers. "It makes you stronger," the teacher would say, his voice reeking with smug satisfaction.

If he had known how much depended on his music, he would’ve picked a warm concert hall in the middle of a polished, empty stage with an audience cheering for their musical gladiator. Not this lonely, abandoned house in the middle of a minefield. If the soldiers didn’t kill him, something else would. This piano was only buying him time either way. His hands shook, and he missed a note. But, he reminded himself, no one who hadn't heard the song before would know.

He waited resignedly for the retaliatory bayonet jab, but it never came.

“Want some food?” one of the soldiers asked him, shoving a rough loaf of bread under his nose.

It smelled sweet and doughy, and its warmth caressed his face like a blanket, and he could feel his mouth watering. But he couldn’t take it without lifting his fingers from the keys. He pinched his lips shut and shook his head.

The final chord of the sonata rang out true and pure and clear. He already knew what was next: Pathetique. Appropriate, all things considered.

When that was over, he started again. And again. And soon he realized with a slow desperation that he was running out of music. Soon he’d be improvising, and it was hard to think of notes that sounded musical. Could the soldiers tell the difference? He wanted a chance to pray while playing something mindless, something he could rely on his fingers to perform without his conscious assistance.

He started to repeat the first sonata, but the soldier on watch duty behind him shouted it down. “No repeats!”

That’s not fair. 

But none of it was fair. Neither the game, nor the prize.

He grasped at the last thing he could remember; a Tchaikovsky piece without a title, written on a few wrinkled sheets of paper and never finished. He’d learned it years ago as punishment for not practicing. Some of the chords were too big for his frozen fingers to reach, and the song sounded like a different composition without them. But at least it was music. He could pray for strength now that he didn’t have to think about what he was doing. From here on out, if repeats weren’t allowed, the great musicians couldn’t help him anymore. 

He wished them goodbye, and his fingers hit a G sharp instead of an F. The soldiers behind him stirred, but didn’t say a word.

And once that piece was finished, he kept going. The first tune that came to his mind, oddly enough, was frantically happy. It forced his hands to move so fast that they finally started to warm up. He wondered if his prayers had been heard, and if perhaps God had put the song in his mind to encourage him. 

The soldiers behind him grumbled restlessly, seemingly irritated that the music had changed. But still, nobody spoke. He must have been succeeding at keeping up the illusion that he knew what he was doing.

Must have been succeeding. He couldn’t fail. He’d put in so much effort that if they killed him now –

Unconsciously, his rhythm slowed, and he transitioned into a different theme entirely. He stopped thinking for a split second and hit a horribly wrong note. The soldier on guard smacked his shoulders right where he’d been stabbed, and he jolted with the pain that shot through his arms all the way to his fingers. He slowed down even more to give himself more time to think.

His music teacher would laugh if he was watching. “Performing poorly under pressure,” he’d cackle. “I always told you to rehearse more, but you wouldn’t. You said you were too busy. Well, look where it got you!"

“I’ve been fighting a war,” he muttered desperately, his voice drowned by the piano. And besides, he was practicing now, making up for all the time he'd procrastinated when he was young. How many hours had he been playing already? Three? Six? Twelve?

His teacher’s face never lost its mockery. He was standing next to the piano now, his elbow resting on top – a crime for which his students would’ve been slapped to high heaven, but as he always said, rules don't apply to masters. He jammed his hand against the upper notes, ruining the melody, and the pianist winced as though his ears had been stabbed.

“Try harder!” he screeched. “You’re not giving it your best effort.”

“I’m trying!” he cried, just like he’d done a hundred times before when he was a boy. A single drop trickled down his left cheek. It wouldn’t be enough no matter how hard he tried. Playing forever and ever, playing better than the masters themselves - that wouldn't save him.

“Trying what?” someone behind him said. “You're slowing down. Keep up!”

The teacher shot him a smug look of I-told-you-so and disappeared. He blinked to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, but there was nobody at the piano. All he could see were the drearily monotonous keys and his own shadow that seemed to drill a hole in the keyboard.

He could hear a distinct rustling behind him. The soldiers were getting up. It was morning. He’d been playing all night. The orange light coming from behind him was the sun, not the lantern. It was about to be over. He’d impressed them enough. They’d leave and let him live. They had to.

“Longest two hours of my life,” said a hot voice right into his ear. It was the soldier who had been on watch duty. “Thank goodness I can sleep through the rest.”

He gulped and hit a shaky C major chord. Never had it sounded so hideous.

The movement was replaced by silence as a new guard took over the watch. The orange light never changed; if it was the sun, it must have been blocked behind a cloud. He wondered what the world beyond the piano looked like. From his hazy memory the outside was a field and there wasn't even a tree in sight. Not a hill, nowhere he could hide if he suddenly made a bolt for it.

Was there really no other option? What if he just ... stopped? How much more time did he need to commend his soul to the divine, and rest in the knowledge that at least God would have mercy on him? He'd done his best, or almost his best - who would blame him for giving up?

It was getting harder to breathe. The wounds on his back begged for him to lie down, bathe them with warm water, anything to take away the stinging pain of congealed blood, cold air, and open flesh. He wondered if he could take one hand off the piano and reach around to touch them and let heat from his sweaty hands ease the soreness. No, he couldn’t.

“Please let me stop,” he sobbed, still playing, resting his exhausted head against his chest. “I’m begging you. Please let me go.”

“You can stop whenever you want,” someone said, and he heard the familiar click of a bolt-action rifle. Even the littlest sound of the barrel brushing against someone’s canvas jacket sounded louder to him than the piano, which he could barely hear anymore. Something cold touched his ear, and he kept playing, doggedly closing his eyes. So what if the notes he hit were wrong? The worst they could do was kill him.

But something kept his hands moving.

Now, he could swear, the orange light had gotten a little paler. It was sunlight, soft and warm on his tender shoulders. The soldiers were starting to move around, yawning audibly and stretching, their joints cracking in the cold. They started a fire, which popped thinly and produced waves of smoke that made his eyes water. He wanted to rub them. He couldn’t take his hands off the piano.

He was starving and thirsty. The smoke dried out his mouth, and his lips were stuck together. He couldn’t open them to get a drink, even if there had been anything to drink. Flakes of dry skin were peeling off his knuckles and floating gently down to the keys below, hard to see against the white but glaring and annoying against the black. They broke the pattern he was now so used to. He made a game of trying to brush them off with his fingers while he was playing.

Then he smelled it: food. Cooking meat in some sort of savory herb he couldn’t quite identify. A soup, probably. Steam. It wafted around his nose and made his eyes water more, this time mixed with tears. And for that matter, what was stopping him from giving up, scarfing a last desperate mouthful of soup before the soldiers could kill him?

He licked his own tears, but the salt only made his mouth drier.

Why, he wondered, had he been so ready to admit defeat and let himself be killed? He had a family that would welcome him home, which was more than most could say. He had a house and a farm and a cat and a dog and a warm bed with wool coverlets. They’d scratch his hands when he crawled under them, but in a comforting, caressing way, like an old woman’s hand covered in calluses. In the morning, when he woke up, they'd be on the floor, because someone would have started a fire and his room would be swelteringly warm. He'd get up, wrapped in a cozy sense of homeliness, and go downstairs to find a bowl of hot broth waiting for him. He'd cup his hands around the mug and take a deep drink, and thank his mother for making it. She, in turn, would thank his father for building the fire. They'd all smile and laugh, and go about their days as though they hadn't a care in the world.

Since when had he been so ungrateful that this horrific torture was required to remind him just what he would be losing? Had endless exposure to death and destruction really made him that blasé to all life's blessings?

Playing until he couldn't strike another note would be his way of proving he’d fought to the bitter end, in appreciation for the gifts he'd been given and the life he'd been allowed to live. He had to keep playing until he was so reluctant to die that all he could think about was his gratitude. And then, only then, when he had finally discovered the true value of what he was losing, would he be released.

That, at least, was the idea that flitted through his mind all in the span of a few short notes. There was, he believed, a reason for everything - and if he didn't learn one last lesson, then what good would his playing have been?

He played until his hands were raw and bleeding. He played until he couldn’t feel his fingers, frostbitten from the cold ivory keys. He played until he couldn’t hear his own music anymore, only the vague sounds of the soldiers behind him. He played until the knowledge of what he would be leaving behind was driven like a nail into his brain. He played until death was the last thing he could imagine, and his thoughts were filled with his home. He played until his prayers changed from pleas for a quick death to pleas for a second chance.

And then, as if by accident, he stopped. His hands dropped to his knees, and when he tried to lift them again, they simply wouldn’t move.

“Hurrah!” cried someone from behind him. “That was the longest concert of my life.”

A deep choking misery crept up his throat, and he felt a tear run down his cheek. Another, and another. He smiled because he was filled with bittersweet longing for everything he loved that he had never remembered to appreciate, and because he couldn't quite get rid of the hope that God would hear his cries and spare him. And he cried because his arms were so stiff that his shoulders felt wrenched out of joint, just from the tiny movement he'd made to drop his hands to his lap.

No matter what happened, at least he knew he had fought all the way to the elusive end. He had done his best.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

A hand on his shoulder forced him to turn around and look straight up into a pair of warm brown eyes. The soldier was grinning on one side, and his grip radiated cheerfulness.

“I’m impressed,” he said.

The pianist smiled wider. “Thank you. I’ve been playing since I was a child, but this is the first time I’ve played for anyone else.”

“If only we didn’t have to kill you,” said the soldier. He really did seem a little regretful, but his hands showed no hesitation as they unbuckled his holster and pulled out his revolver. He loaded it with painstaking slowness.

The pianist watched, occasionally lifting his hands to his eyes to wipe away his tears so they didn’t freeze on his cheeks. He felt as if he’d earned a badge of honor. He was terrified, yet pure fear had never felt so sweet, for his mind was filled with happy memories. He barely felt afraid, for he trusted that he had done right, whatever the outcome. The crude fatalism that had ruled his life throughout the war was gone, and he had never felt so intensely alive. 

He didn't look away until the soldier had finished loading the revolver, and then he closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.

Something wet ran down his face. Was it blood? Was he dying?

He put a hand to his forehead. Not sticky, just wet. 


Before he could control himself, he tilted his head down and caught the drops in his hands, pressing them to his lips and feeling the blessed wetness spreading over his tongue and into his cheeks. He was so, so thirsty, so thirsty that he could think about nothing else.

The man holding the revolver paused and laughed. He said something to the group behind him, which earned him more laughter, and then he put his hand on the pianist’s shoulder.

“Come get something to eat,” he said, gesturing toward the fire and the little kettle from which a curl of steam was rising eagerly.

The pianist followed its path with his eyes. There was a hole in the roof, and a little of the snow had tumbled inside and fallen on his head. The weather was warming up. Spring was coming.

He numbly accepted a bowl of soup from the soldiers, cupping his frozen hands around it and greedily inhaling its perfume. At first, he was hesitant, but as the soldiers who couldn’t speak his language laughed and pointed at the ground in front of them, he understood that they meant for him to sit down and eat with them. So he did, trying to keep his eyes on all of them at once, afraid they would shoot when he wasn’t expecting it.

But they didn’t. Instead, they cheered. They were all talking about him and laughing, but this time they were laughing with him instead of at him. Though he didn’t understand a word of what they were saying, he knew it wasn’t unkind. Their words almost seemed like an apology, though he knew they would never say it to his face.

They were all just human, after all. They shared a common heritage: unbounded cruelty and endless love. They’d learned the lessons of both, and the good had won out in the end - thank God, the pianist added to himself. For he wanted to tell his mother that he missed her cooking.

“You’re brave,” one of the soldiers commented. “I don't want to fight you." He translated his remark for the others, and they nodded in solemn agreement.

And as the snow fell in through the hole in the ceiling, and the fire burned brighter, and the water on the floor melted into a murky puddle, they parted ways, vowing through enthusiastic sign language that they’d meet up again after the war. They’d meet at this very spot and have another concert, and they’d patch up the hole in the roof so they could bring their families with them. The pianist was hesitant at first, but he couldn't help thinking that their smiles seemed genuine. He couldn't quite manage to be angry with them, for he knew that he was little better than they were. It had taken all of them too long to learn the lessons they should have learned before they ever left their homes, and this was the price they had to pay - fear of each other, which only miraculous strength and respect for life and for each other had managed to overcome.

It wasn’t until he’d lost sight of them in the distance that his knees got weak and he toppled to the ground, burying his face in the snow and feeling its cold spread through his bones. He’d never been so close to death before – not in all his battles and firefights and skirmishes. And yet, somehow, he’d never appreciated life more, either.

He pulled himself up to his knees, threw his head back, and smiled brightly at the sky. Perhaps his twelve hours of torture had made him insane, but the only thing he could think of to say was a simple thank you

"Thank you for letting me live. Thank you for giving me something to live for." He began to laugh, his voice echoing off the frozen ground. "Thank you for making something good come out of all that misery."

A yell echoed through the woods, and somebody shouted his name. He started to his feet, frightened again, until he realized it was his friend - the one who’d left him alone, the one who hadn't watched his back when he went alone into that house. But that didn’t matter anymore. The pianist had never been so anxious to forgive, for he was just grateful to have a friend at all. He wrapped his arms around his mystified friend's chest and hugged him tightly.

He wanted the war to be over.

He wanted to go home, back to the world of peace and kindness and neighborliness that he - and the soldiers who had held him captive - had almost forgotten about. He wanted to hug everyone, to thank them for all they'd done for him, and to tell them how sorry he was that he hadn't done it earlier.

"... He played for more than twenty-four hours straight before collapsing in tears, at which point the soldiers, somewhat impressed, decided to let him go."