I’ve heard that years after the war, Japanese soldiers remained hidden in the caves of Iwo Jima. The idea was that they had never gotten word the war was over. That they’d lost. So, I always admired them for it.
Sometimes I imagine one of them, vigilant, waiting in the darkness, his skin faint like old paper. His wife has another lover in her bed. She cries when she makes love now, but she never says it’s about the man in the cave because there is no man in the cave, and they are ghosts, and I sleep soundly knowing that men like that still exist, and I am not one of them.
My girlfriend shoves me awake. “I hear music,” she says.
“What?” I snap upright and tilt my head. The wash of my dream lingers in my mouth. I can still taste its remains. Something powdery.
“I can hear music, like a little tinkling—like tink, tink.”
I can’t muster much of a response. This is not the first time. The street lamp outside has been getting brighter the last few nights. The room glows charcoal orange.
“Yeah, like—“ She struggles to match the tune. “You don’t hear that?”
“It’s probably the neighbors.” I scratch my beard sleepily. “Dogs.”
“The neighbor’s dogs are playing music?” She wrinkles her nose and shakes me further out of sleep.
“Two things!” I shake my head, annoyed. “They’re two different things.”
She looks at me as if she might cry. I wonder what kind of music does this to a person. I wonder if such music exists anymore. I stroke her hair and guide her back down under the covers. I don’t dream again that night. Not of powder, not of bone or music.
The next night, Jill wrestles me out of sleep again. “You don’t hear that?” She looks like someone who has discovered fire. There is a certain beauty to her fear.
“I wish I could hear what you hear,” I say.
Earlier that day, a plane had gone missing in Malaysia. It was the strangest thing. Like a sinister magic act.
“I think they’re on an island. I think they’re just waiting for rescue,” she’d said to me, watching CNN.
I was eating a Spanish omelet and tinkering with one of the peel-off marmalade packages they give you at diners. Jill had a tendency of saving them whenever we ordered takeout.
Something her mother had probably done. I stare at the long blue couch. It curls up at its ends like lips. “They’re at the bottom of the ocean, sweetie. They’re gone,” I said with absolute certainty, but I didn’t know. That was the great power we all had. Nobody knew where those people had died. No one knew their last fear, but we all imagined it. It was ours.
When I wake in the morning I find Jill ragged, her skin is blotchy with exhaustion. She is straining to hear the music, her ear up against the marmalade bedroom wall.
“Have you slept?”
She doesn’t look at me. She keeps her ear pressed flush to the wall. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she says.
I roll over to her side of the bed, press my ear against the wall. I can hear water coiling through the pipes like skinless snakes. The walls are beaming orange from the inside out. The street lamp is the texture of sun.
“Do you know what the last thing they said was? The Malaysian plane people?” She is facing me now, our noses touching, cheeks crushed up against the wall.
“Someone said ‘All right. Good night.’”
“That’s unsettling,” I say.
“Really?” She kisses my nose. “I think it’s sweet.”
The next day I skip work. All I do is watch CNN. I don’t want them to find it. Someone talks about how it could have been a meteor. He is wearing a suit as he says this. A meteor. How glorious. There is something faint inside me that believes the passengers are waiting vigilantly in a seaside cave. None of them knows it’s pointless. The war is over.
The nights are brighter than the days. My bedroom blooms phosphorescent tangerine. I can feel the color in the backs of my eyes, in my bone. Jill is asleep when I finally hear it. The music is beautiful like a heartbeat. I want to tell Jill, but she hasn’t slept for days. I want her to know that we hear the same things, but instead I listen, and the song lulls me down to the pillow. The light dims.
“All right,” I whisper in Jill’s ear. I kiss her. “Good night.”
© Matthew Di Paoli