Young Rader ~ Those Uncertain Days

When I took my final breath, I felt no pain and so I thought, fleet­ing­ly, that I had escaped death. In the time it took to inhale and exhale, a deeply tucked-away image burst on the sur­face of my mind.

Years ago, a vol­cano in Iceland pushed a hot cloud of ash into the air, turn­ing day into night, and shut­ting down the air­space over much of the con­ti­nent. At the air­port, I watched the bob­bing heads of agi­tat­ed trav­el­ers adopt a com­mis­er­at­ing rhythm. Then, my own head joined in as I filed towards the exit.

On the bus, I sat beside a man who bal­anced a can­vas tote bag and a wood­en box as long as his fore­arm on his lap. We were shut­tled past the Guggenheim’s sweep­ing tita­ni­um walls to Hotel Zubiri.

In the late after­noon, I walked a few blocks into a dri­ving wind towards the riv­er and, to escape the driz­zle that had become a steady rain, took a short flight of brick steps down to a cafe­te­ria pro­tect­ed by the over­hang­ing office build­ing that sat atop of it. My eye­brows were still wet when I bit into a soft tuna sand­wich and took in the peo­ple at the bar, where I rec­og­nized the man who had sat beside me on the bus. He was observ­ing a pair of dachs­hunds nos­ing flower petals strewn under a chair out­side. He noticed me glanc­ing in his direc­tion and smiled. I waved. To my sur­prise, he slid off his stool and ambled to my table. Seeing him up close again, I guessed he was in his late-six­ties. “Excuse me,” he said in a feath­er­like voice, his English bend­ing strange­ly in my ears. “Do I know you?”

You sat next to me on the bus.”

Ah yes. Where were you headed?”

London,” I said. “And you?”


What was in that box?”

He pulled out a chair and sat down at my table. “Horsehair.”


Bolivar!” the woman work­ing the bar snapped at one of the dogs out­side, the one that had begun to bare its teeth and snarl.

The man nod­ded. “For vio­lin bows. I was sup­posed to deliv­er it to a bow­mak­er in Paris. Madame Garmeaux won’t be hap­py that I’m stuck here.” There was some­thing wrong with his blue eyes. They were milky, and too wet. They sad­dened me. “What about you? What’s in London?”

I told him about the pho­tog­ra­ph­er who had hired me as part of a team of assis­tants to help mount a ret­ro­spec­tive of his work at the Tate Modern.

Never heard of him,” the man said.


He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “And are you an artist?”

Yes. Well, maybe.” I couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes any­more. “Not yet,” I said. “I—”



The rain let up, the pale sun came out, a cool wind rus­tled down the streets. We walked back to the hotel. In the mir­rored lob­by, I watched count­less ver­sions of our­selves con­vers­ing beside count­less sculp­tures of a cow. The man said, “I have an idea.” The motion sen­sors failed to detect our mov­ing bod­ies as we made our way down the unlit hallways.

In his room, he washed his hands calm­ly at the sink and then unclasped the wood­en box, bring­ing out a hank of beau­ti­ful white horse hair. I reached out com­pul­sive­ly to touch it.

No,” he said. “It’s been dressed and cleaned. Came from a liv­ing horse, a stal­lion, in Canada. It’s great hair with won­der­ful bite.”

Is it true,” I said, “that music has no evo­lu­tion­ary advantage?”

He smiled. “Don’t tell,” and he drew out enough strands to twist togeth­er into a stur­dy opales­cent string. He wrapped it around my wrist. “Without this hair, no vio­lin, no mat­ter how extra­or­di­nary, is able to sing.” I watched his thick fin­gers guide the hair into a knot.

When he was done, I lift­ed up my hand. “It’s beautiful.”

So, sing.”

His words moved me greatly.

He sat with me on the edge of the bed until I was qui­et again. Then he spoke a bit.

We lis­tened to the cat­er­waul of an ambu­lance grow near, then distant.


My life as an artist began to gain momen­tum. I exhib­it­ed my own work in small gal­leries, and then in larg­er ones, and soon, I even had assis­tants of my own. Then, in what felt like in the blink of an eye, things were sprint­ing ahead. I was trav­el­ing all over the world, and I some­times yearned to step back into the past, to parse through those uncer­tain days in exchange for the ones I was mov­ing through, even though I was exact­ly where I’d always wished of being.

And though it had meant a great deal to me, and as strange as it might sound, I for­got what hap­pened to the horse hair bracelet. I must have slid if off at some point and lost it, but I often imag­ined that it had frayed and slow­ly come undone and that there was but one sin­gle strand still loose­ly girdling my wrist, unno­ticed, catch­ing the light every now and then, and blaz­ing like a fiery annulus.

And so, it was this sin­gle strand of horse hair that burst upon the sur­face of my mind. And as I imag­ined it com­ing undone at last and drop­ping away from my wrist, undu­lat­ing lumi­nous­ly some dis­tance on the wind, I breathed out. I felt no pain and so I thought, fleet­ing­ly, that I had escaped death.

I was hap­py, tru­ly hap­py, and then I died.


Young Rader lives and writes in Berlin. His work has appeared in the Chicago Review, New England Review, Little Star, Passages North, and else­where. His sto­ries have been short­list­ed for the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize and the Berlin Writing Prize.