The Golden Horn


THE street festival, the street festival!” everybody passing our house was saying. I stood at a window and watched the people in the summer twilight going to the street festival. It was the beginning of summer in our village; it was the day everybody knew summer had actually arrived, coming up from the south with the robins, coming across the Ohio River from Kentucky, Virginia, all the states in the South, coming to our village in Ohio, coming with soft feet and lilac breath.

I stood at our window and watched. I saw Marjorie Wellman go with her hair tied up in little tails, with soap glistening behind her ears, wearing shoes that showed every toe. I saw Chuck Miller go with his slingshot and his pockets heavy with pennies for ice cream and cake. I saw Mrs. Marvin and all her kids; I saw Grandpa go.

“Grandpa! Grandpa!” I cried. “Take me with you!” But Grandpa could not hear; his cane, clicking on the sidewalk like the cackle of a hen, kept him from hearing. Everybody was going to the Maple Street Festival, but I had failed that year in school and I could not go. Miss Grover, my teacher, failed me, but I saw Miss Grover go. I watched until the street blurred in front of me, until the night came; but when I wiped my eyes I could see again.

My mother was reading by the lamplight in the parlor. My father was in the cellar cleaning the furnace; they were not going to the Maple Street Festival. They were tired, they said, and every year it was the same. They had been going to it every year; it was where they had first met each other, at the Maple Street fair. Now they did not go to the Maple Street Festival any more. They stayed in the house and played old.

My father came up from the cellar, the furnace cleaned. He went to the window where I stood. He put his head out and whiffed in the night air. He turned his ear toward Maple Street and heard the sound of music. He began to hum a little tune — a tune we could hear the calliope playing at the Festival. He was like myself looking through our window. I listened to him strumming on the sill with his fingers. With the melody in his throat he brought the calliope to our house. I put one hand on my head, the other at my hip. I did a dance to the tune of my father’s song. And he laughed at me and then went to the window again.

“The night air smells like the perfume of an angel,” he said.

“ It smells like Festival night,” I said. “They are dancing in the streets at the square. Hear the clicking of heels and the sound of laughing?”

And it was true; you could hear, you could hear!

My father listened, this time without posing. He simply grew still. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I hear.” Then he turned to my mother who was sewing. “Do you hear, Mother?”

My mother nodded. “Of course,” she said very softly. Then she turned to us. “And why don’t you take your son?” she said with the same softness in her voice, working a miracle in her own house, making everything right, and the music more beautiful, and the night a tremendous thing to have.

My failure in school was no longer remembered; at least it was not mentioned. The miracle my mother had made lay like a beautiful gossamer over the rooms, and in that moment her face was erased of all its lines, and she sat not moving in her chair, as if what she had just performed had made her a little tired.

In a moment we were on the street in the summer dark, passing briefly under the lamps of the intersections where the moths played and dust on the road lay freshly sprinkled. My father had lighted a cigar and the aroma of it clung to us as we walked. His new shoes screeched like the song of the crickets and we did not speak. We walked as if little springs had been fastened to our heels, and we leaned our bodies forward so as to be nearer with our ears, nearer to the Maple Street Festival.

in the sky, now, we could see the reflection of t he lights, and sometimes we whiffed the odor of popcorn balls and crackerjack; and sometimes the perfume of a beautiful lady passing in the dark, hearing the rustle of her skirt. But we did not speak; we only walked. I held fast to my father’s large hand.

And then, at last, we were there, as if a curtain had been raised on a stage letting all the light in, and I had to squint my eyes, had to adjust them to this new brightness that was part of my mother’s miracle. The street was filled with many people. The courthouse was alight and on the porch steps sat the old people who had already grown tired. I saw Miss Grover there. The stores were open and there was dancing in the street. A man was selling live lizards to the brave, and toy ones to the others. The live ones cost more and I asked my father why.

“One is not simply brave,” he said. “You have to work for it.”

He bought me a live lizard with “Maple Street Festival” painted on it. He bought me ice cream and cake. He bought me a ball of popcorn and a pair of brown shoestrings. We threw pennies on a large drum, and a band played the songs my father knew. A girl with a tambourine danced to the tunes my father knew. A man came up with trinkets on his back, playing a golden horn, making merry-goround music high above the sound of everything.

“What do you have for sale?” my father said, his voice sounding hoarse, trying to rise above every jubilant sound.

The man talked through the horn. And we could not understand what he said; but my father picked out a little shiny horn and held it in his hand.

“ It is a beautiful instrument,” the man said. “Is it for you or the boy?”

My father smiled. “It is for the boy, not me. I do not play.”

My father bought the horn for a quarter. “Let’s hurry home,” he said, “and play the horn for your mother. She has not come to the Festival, so we must take the Festival to her.”

He held the horn in his hand. It shone in the light, was like a little jewel in a ring. We passed from the crowd, and in the darkness again we found it difficult to see. The streets seemed unfamiliar. Our ears were tired and we allowed them to rest. Our eyes were filled with light and we could not see.

“We shall make music wherever we go,” my father said. “The music of the Maple Street Festival will live in our house a long time.”

But in the darkness our golden horn did not glisten; it lay dead in my father’s hand. My lizard squirmed in my pocket.

We hurried now, faster and faster, and I understood that we did so because in the darkness my father was afraid someone would hold us up and take the horn away from us. We seemed to be going like dry leaves in the autumn down one street and another, and once more we leaned forward with our bodies as if against a strong wind, burying our faces into the air just ahead of us. Sometimes we turned and looked back at the lights in the sky showing where the Festival was, and we could hear the laughter and music above the sound of our breathing.

We turned down the little dark street where we lived. We went into the house and my mother was sitting in the chair where we had left her. She had performed her miracle and sat now waiting to listen to its sound in her ears, under the strands of her brown hair, wondering what form it would take.

My father turned on one light after another, making the room ablaze with light, so that the horn glistened before us like the communion cup at the church. He settled himself in a chair close to my mother and began to play on the horn, but it did not make a tune; it sang only one note, and that was sour. He tried again and again, then gave the horn to my mother. “Play just a simple melody,” my father said. “Bring the Festival home.”

My mother blew into the horn many times but no melody came out.

Caressing the red tassel, my father gave the horn to me. “You are young and you have much more strength in your lungs,” he said. “See what my son can do.” But I could not do it better than the rest.

My father lowered his head. “I have been swindled.” He took the horn and went into the cellar with it. We heard the furnace door open and close. When he returned to the room in which my mother and I sat, we did not dare look into his face.

But the next night when my father came home from work he brought with him a young man named Dematti who had beautiful hands and sad eyes, and a voice that was soft and clear like a child’s. Dematti worked with my father in the shop and now my father was bringing him home to eat at our table and to talk to him of music, for Dematti was a musician.

After the meal, my father went down into the cellar, and when he came up he was carrying the little golden horn with the red tassel. He was wiping the horn on his shirt, for it was covered with wood ashes, and Dematti nodded his head. “Wood ashes preserve the tone,” he said. He placed the horn to his lips, and went up and down the scale, immediately he brought out a melody of beauty. He played until the perspiration came out upon his face.

Dematti made melody over melody. The music rose to the ceiling and returned. The music crept into our furniture, seeped through the windows into the alley, and down the alley to the street. Children came running with dogs, and old men came, and a cripple came leaning on a cane, and the red sun was going down in the sky, and still Dematti played on my father’s twenty-five-ccnt horn.

It was indeed a long time before Dematti stopped playing. But finally he took the horn away from his lips and breathed a deep sigh, and nowhere was there a sound while Dematti sat down. We were all silent, standing without tongues, looking with awe upon the instrument now resting on the table.

“Please, please,” my father said. “Play again, just one more song again!” But Dematti shook his head. He was tired and was now slumped down in a chair. His sad eyes were closed and his long fingers lay across his chest. “Just one more melody,” my father said.

But Dematti shook his head. “No, no,” he said.

I wanted to tell my father how Dematti had played the horn, but I was afraid. I had been standing close to Dematti and I had heard him sing into the horn like one blowing upon a comb; but I did not want to spoil my father’s belief in the horn.

Then Dematti thanked my mother for a fine meal. And my father led him out the front door, for he was a visitor. He had played on our horn. He went down the steps and was like a great heavy coat walking alone, his shoulders sagging, his long fingers hanging lifeless at his side.

My mother and father called after him. “Goodbye, Dematti. Good-bye, good-bye!” And Dematti was gone. The sun had left the sky and it was now twilight, and Dematti was gone.

My father hurried back into the kitchen where the golden horn lay like a tired bird upon the table. He stood and looked at it, his eyes large, his mouth agape. He had forgotten to light the lamp in the kitchen and it was almost too dark to see; but in the darkness my father whispered. His voice was soft and beautiful, like the whisper of the trees outside.

“It has a soul,” my father whispered. “It plays. It is a gracious thing. Oid you hear it singing?” And my mother coming in said, “Yes, I heard it.”

“So I have not been cheated,” my father said. “I knew what I was buying at the Maple Street Festival. I am enough of a musician to know!”

He picked up the horn holding it as one might hold a flower, tenderly and with infinite care. He held it close to his cheek, and then with the same tenderness he gave it to my mother.

“Go with it to the china closet,” my father said. “Put it with the beautiful things we possess. Keep it to show company.”

My mother carried it away; she put it into the china closet with the beautiful things we possessed, the expensive things. But Dematti has never returned, and when company comes on Sundays all that anyone sees is a little tin horn that is rusty and feeble standing on a shelf, for that is all it is. It has never been anything else. And yet when I remember that night Dematti came I cannot be too sure.