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.”
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.