A different sort of ghost story.
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William walked slowly down the street and towards the bridge. His stomach was churning, and his emotions were a jumble. Is this what he had spent the last ten years of his life for?
He slowly walked across the bridge. This was his normal late afternoon-early evening walk. To the bridge, across the river, through the small neighborhood of stores and restaurants on the other side of the river, a pause for a small cup of tea, turn around and head back. Tonight was different. It was late for his walk. He had started his walk late because events of the day had been shocking. And William thought a walk, even a late one, might clear his head.
William headed across the bridge, stopped in the middle and looked at the large full moon. He leaned on the rail and looked down at the river, slowly but steadily moving seaward. His mind became hyper-active once again, and his emotions heated up.
An external influence slowed his mind and brought him back to earth. He was still angry, but now he was confused as well. What caused the confusion was the odor from a foul cigar had come out of nowhere and was assaulting his nose. He lifted his head, and turned his gaze to the source of the smell. Puffing on that cigar was a portly man, wearing an ill-fitting and poorly-kept black suit. The white shirt had a grey tinge to it. The tie was dirty, showing a lot of soup spills. The man’s grey beard was long and unkempt. And his hair, black and turning grey, looked as if it had not been brushed or combed in weeks. The man took another puff on his cigar and smiled at William.
“Yes? What is it you want?” William asked, gruffly.
“Nothing, really.” The man took another puff on the disgusting cylinder and tossed it into the river. He put his hands into his trouser pockets. His brow furrowed as he looked upon William. “It just seemed you appeared to be in distress. I thought, perhaps, I could help. If nothing else, I am a good listener.” Here the man’s countenance brightened, and he smiled.
“What do you know of anything?” William asked. But it was more a statement of contempt than a question.
The man removed his hands from his pockets and folded them behind his back. He rocked back and forth on his feet a bit, toe-to-heel, then heel-to-toe, and so on. He lost his smile and his expression grew very serious. “Then why don’t you tell me what I need to know?”
“Oh, I see.” William was coming to a boil. “And you are some wealthy and influential man, and with your influence and your money, you will make everything right. And, of course, no one will ever know. Please, spare me.” And William turned away.
“Perhaps I can help. Then again, perhaps not.” The man’s smile returned. “Sometimes it is good just to vent. To clear the air, so to speak. Why not try it?”
William tilted his head and gazed upon the elderly gentlemen, his expression now one of curiosity. “Perhaps I should tell you, sir. But let me begin at the beginning.”
“Please, do,” the man said.
William cleared his throat and began his story. How he had spent four years at university, studying music. After graduation, he had a choice. To continue on to graduate school, eventually getting his doctorate, or attend the conservatory, and acquire an artist’s certificate? Which one would be better? William was not sure, but, in the end, he decided to attend the conservatory. His friend, Charles, had stayed on at university and gotten a doctorate.
Charles was offered a nice teaching position upon his graduation. He accepted. The teaching job would, one day, lead to a prestigious full professorship. It appeared as though the rest of Charles’s life was set. William was to take a different route. He would become a conductor.
Not a conductor of the university ensemble. Not even a conductor of the local symphony. Instead, William was to be given the position of music director of a small orchestra in a remote college town, 150 miles away. The orchestra was really a chamber orchestra, and it was not very good. It had only twenty-nine players, and was considered slightly worse than average. So much for his artist’s certificate.
The man stepped up to the rail next to William, and gazed upon the river. He cleared his throat and began to speak.
“So, you begin your career conducting.” The man paused for a second. “That is rare. Most conductors, no matter the quality of the orchestra, do not begin as conductors. You may, I think, consider this a bit of a blessing in disguise.”
“Spare me,” William snarled. “I am dead and buried. My career is over before it begins.”
“Consider the river,” the old man began. “It starts its journey, perhaps as a spring, perhaps as a small stream, far away. That is its beginning. As it travels, it gains strength, and power, and substance. It goes through many changes. It can be slow, or fast. Calm, or violent. Thoughtful, or disturbed. It goes through many changes and many moods, all controlled and dictated by the river bank and bottom. Finally, it reaches its ending, the sea.”
“And your point is?” William asked.
“The conductor, or maestro, is like the river channel.” Here the man grew thoughtful again and paused. “Perhaps the channel is the maestro, where the river is concerned. And the orchestra conductor must guide the music, like it is a river, through all of its changes, and bring it from its beginning to its ending.” Here the man smiled.
“But the river also shapes the channel, gouging here, gently dissolving soil and rock there. So, who really is the conductor?” William’s face began a smile, but, after a second, it stopped. The smile was never completed.
“An excellent point,” the old man acknowledged. “Perhaps, as there is a relationship between the channel and the river, the same, or a similar relationship, exists between the music and the conductor. As the conductor shapes the music, the music shapes the conductor.”
“I know that.” William’s voice was bitter.
“Yes, but do you understand it?” the man asked.
William jerked. He was caught off-guard by that question. He looked at the river, took a deep breath, and turned to face the man. But the man had disappeared.
William looked at the moon again, and turned to his left to walk back home.