Songs Without End: A Short Story

The musician arrived on the day of the first autumn rain.

He wore a faded blue t-shirt, olive green cargo shorts, and an old pair of running shoes. His hair was brownish and flowed down to his shoulders in slight curls, and with that as well as his slim shoulders, he might have passed for a girl. He was just a few inches taller than me, and his fingers were long, slender, and graceful. He looked to be about college-age, but his deep, dark eyes reflected an almost tragic maturity that few college students carried. Slung over his shoulder was a black guitar case.

I watched as he climbed down the stairs to the cove. Given his youth, he took an unusually long time, holding onto the side railing and stepping with slow care. Halfway down he paused and leaned against the railing with his back to me, as if he was staring into the weeds below. He stayed in that position for a while, apparently resting, and then continued down to the beach. Once he was on the sand, he stood still for a moment and looked around, and then he saw me nestled on my towel on the other side of the cove.

I must have looked strange to him, laying there surrounded by textbooks, notebooks, and worksheets. My first round of exams was coming up, so after school everyday I came down here to study by the sea. I didn’t have any close friends to speak of, and my parents didn’t want me at home, so I basically spent all my free time at the beach. I would read the lessons, make clean copies of my notes, and fill out the worksheets to the best of my ability. When I finished, I’d sit back, put my headphones in, and listen to rock music while watching the waves crawl into shore. Sometimes I’d fall asleep like that. If I got hungry or thirsty I would climb the stairs, cross the street, and go into the local convenience store to buy bread or milk. Every day saw exactly the same routine play out; these were the limits of my life.

So, when the musician arrived, I was understandably deeply curious. The town I lived in was small and familiar, and I knew with one hundred percent certainty that the musician wasn’t a local. He was a stranger, a newcomer, and that interested me. I had so many questions: Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he come here, of all places? And why was he alone? I was dying to know, but too afraid to ask.

When he saw me he gave a shy, polite nod and started to walk over. I closed my textbook and stood up. Watching him approach, I again noted his manner of walking — very slow, very deliberate, but he didn’t seem to be injured in any way. Once he was within several feet of me he said in a thin, quiet voice, “Hello, would it bother you if I play some music here?”

He spoke in the formal manner, which surprised me, because I was clearly his junior. I replied in a respectful tone, “I don’t mind.”

He smiled, thanked me, and walked over to one of the wooden benches lining the back of the cove. There he took off his guitar case. He set it down very gently and took his time taking the instrument out. I sat back on my beach towel and watched as he struck a few chords, warming up his fingers.

After several minutes he sat down on the bench and started to play, gazing down at the strings with his face shadowed by the setting sun. I listened carefully, but I didn’t recognize the song at all. It didn’t seem to have much melody; it sounded like it was missing some thing — other instruments, or a singer, maybe. Nevertheless, it was clear to me that he was an amazing guitarist. His fingers flew over fast passages with speed and accuracy, never missing a beat. I watched in admiration.

The piece lasted just a little over five minutes, and when it concluded I found myself longing for more. But the guitarist seemed exhausted. He rested the guitar on his knees, leaned back against the bench, and closed his eyes, breathing quick and strained. I wondered how it was that a musician with so much skill didn’t seem to have that much endurance. But then, I wasn’t a guitarist myself, so I didn’t really have any right to say that.

I watched him for a minute, and when it didn’t seem likely that he’d continue to play, I reopened my science textbook and tried to study some more. But I couldn’t seem to concentrate. My mind was fixed on the stranger guitarist and the empty piece he had played, trying to decipher the workings of his mind, of his music. I gave up studying, shut the book, and stared off into the hazy ocean-soaked horizon.

Some ten minutes later the musician stood up. Without looking at me or saying anything, he reached into his case, attached a shoulder strap to his guitar, and took off his shoes. Then he started strumming while slowly walking barefoot towards the sea. I watched with surprise, wondering what he was doing. The waves washed in and out, providing a soft, secondary rhythm to his song, and each time the water retreated towards the horizon it seemed to draw the musician with it. I had this irrational feeling that he was just going to keep walking and walking — that he’d walk into the depths of the ocean, still strumming his guitar, and he’d just never come back. For some reason, this fantasy had a strange appeal to it — but not for him. For myself.

To my odd disappointment, the musician stopped walking before the water came up to his knees. He continued to play, though, his head bent slightly over his guitar. He stood there with his back to me, playing this hauntingly beautiful piece to the spirits of the sea, and the low orange sun turned his figure into a fiery silhouette. Sitting there watching, there was something magical about it — I wondered, several times, if I was hallucinating.

When the piece finished he stood there quietly, unmoving, his guitar framed by the last golden rays of the night. And, as if on cue, it started to rain. I raised my face with startled delight to the herald of fall. It was a soft, misty, thoughtful kind of rain — the kind that brought the promise of beginnings as well as endings, of the world coming full circle, of the flow of time transforming into something new. I closed my eyes, savoring the feeling — I’d been waiting for this for months. Abruptly a thought occurred to me and I bolted upright, scrambling to cover up my books and notes before they got too damp.

By the time I’d gotten my school things covered, the musician had already put away his guitar. He looked over at me and said politely, quietly, “I’ll be going now.” And without waiting for a response, he turned and walked off. Seated in the misty rain, I watched as he slowly made his way up the stairs and disappeared from my sight.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had all been a dream. But these two sudden, fantastical interruptions to my daily routine intertwined themselves in my mind until they were completely and utterly inseparable. The appearance of the musician and the arrival of the rain couldn’t possibly be connected. Could it?


After school the next day I rushed to the beach. Normally I would take the long way around, swinging casually through several side streets and local shops, but I was so fixated on the mysterious musician that I hurried straight down to the cove. And when I reached the top of the stairs, I saw that he was already there.

Sitting at his wooden bench, he wore a light pink-and-white striped shirt and the same kind of shorts as the day before. His guitar case lay beside him, but what was in his hands wasn’t a guitar. I shuffled through the sand towards him wonderingly, and as soon as I was close enough to see what it was I blurted my thoughts out in rude surprise.

“Is that a violin?”

He looked at me and smiled, slow and kind. “Yes, it’s a violin,” he said in his soft voice. “Have you ever played before?”

I shook my head. “No. I haven’t played guitar, either. But there are some violinists I like listening to. Mostly I listen to rock bands, though.”

“Are you in high school?” he asked.

“Yes.” Encouraged by his polite friendliness, I said respectfully, “I’m Kishi Furukawa. What’s your name?”

“You can call me Ryū.”

“Ryū-san…” I began.

“Just Ryū,” he said. He indicated the spot on the bench next to him, and I sat down gratefully, lowering my heavy backpack to the sand.

“Ryū. Is that your stage name?”

He looked at me with surprise. “How did you know?”

“That first song you played yesterday sounded incomplete, like it needed another guitar and a singer to go along with it,” I replied. “I figured you were in a band or something.”

Ryū smiled. “Hey, you’re pretty smart. And you have an ear for music. You’re right, I used to be in a band with several of my schoolmates.”

“Not anymore?”

“I had to stop when I got sick.”

He studied me for a second. “Kishi,” he said with a sudden gravity, “I’m terminally ill. I’m sorry to throw this on you, but I came here to die.”

What? I shut my mouth abruptly, all of my previous excitement driven to a standstill. He was terminally ill? I didn’t quite understand.

As if to fill in the silence, Ryū stood up, picked up his violin and bow, and started to play. It was a short but dramatic song, with a certain wildness to it, but also a tinge of some melancholy air. At any other moment it would have sounded shockingly beautiful to me, but I could hardly listen. His words kept repeating in my head: I’m sorry to throw this on you, but I came here to die.

When the piece finished Ryū sat back down, drained. I watched him rest. He looked at me after a few minutes and smiled slowly. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Sixteen,” I replied.

He nodded. “That’s a good age. Just starting to figure out your place in the world, right?”

“I guess so.”

Ryū gazed into my eyes and blushed a little. “I turned eighteen last week,” he said. “Then I left the hospital. You know, I was supposed to die when I was your age. For some reason I’ve had two extra years… it’s strange. I should not be alive.”

I should not be alive. I didn’t know what to say. Nobody I was close to had ever died before, and I’d never known anyone with terminal illness or anything close to it. I felt very strange in the presence of this musician who seemed to live his life waiting for death to claim him.

“So you don’t play any instruments?” he asked, kindly changing the subject.

“I wish,” I said. “I really like your music, by the way.”

He blushed again. “Thank you, I’m glad.”

“What position did you play in your band?”

“The other four members all had static positions: vocalist, drummer, bassist, lead guitarist. Me, I was all over the place. Normally I would be credited as rhythm guitarist, but I would also play violin, I would play piano, sometimes even the flute.”

He saw the surprised look on my face and started to laugh. “At the time we didn’t really fit any specific genre of music,” he explained. “Our style was just everything. We would cover popular songs we liked, and we would also make our own. We would play at school events, and in local cafes, and out on the street some nights, and for some reason people liked our music. We were so young, just barely high schoolers, and we were already pretty famous in our town. We made arrangements to play in the city and became well-known there too. That’s when I got sick.”

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Little town not too far from Sendai.”

“Sendai… I’ve never been.”

He smiled. “You should go sometime. It’s beautiful. Lots of green, lots of rain. You’ve always lived here?”

“Yes. I want to get out, though, as soon as I’m free. My family doesn’t want me, and I’m tired of being stuck in this place.”

“Well then, why wait?”

I thought he was joking, but he just gazed back at me with sparkling dark eyes.

“Life is short, right?” he said. “If you don’t want to live here, then don’t. Get on a train and go.”

“Is that what you did?”

Ryū smiled again. “Something like it. I wanted to die in a place where no one knew of me, where no one would care about my death and no one would remember me afterwards. So I left the hospital and got on a train. I caused a big fuss, you know. All the doctors thought I was giving up. But I was really tired of all the knives and needles and chemicals that just made me feel worse. I made them give me a letter and this wristband before I left.”

He extended his right arm to show me the wristband, a thin bright orange slip. “It means that if the police or paramedics find me, they are not allowed to try to save my life. Probably they can’t do anything anyway, but I feel like I’ve had enough extra time. I don’t think I should be trying to get any more.”

“What about your parents?” I asked. “They just let you go?”

He shook his head. “They’re both dead. Ironic, right? I’m the child, and I’m the one who’s terminally ill, but my perfectly healthy mothers died before me. I lost one in a car accident when I was ten, the other in the big earthquake that happened last year.”

He gave me a sideways look and admitted, “Actually I almost died in that earthquake too. There was a fire in the hospital. It’s very strange, I have this illness that is slowly killing me, but there are so many other ways I can die… I think about that a lot.”

Something about that struck me. Everything about Ryū screamed death, and yet, somehow, he seemed more alive than anyone I’d ever met. This apparent contradiction was a mystery to me. It was hard to bear, and even harder to understand.

Seeing the look on my face, Ryū changed the subject again. He unzipped his guitar case and said affectionately, “You said you listen to rock bands, right? You have a favorite? A band, a singer, a song?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Do you know Rose of Pain?”

He smiled, nodded. “Sing, okay?” he said. “I bet you know the lyrics.”

I blushed. “Well, yeah, but I don’t really sing…”

“If you don’t want to sing, at least hum the melody line. Music is communal. Two people is better than one.” He lifted the guitar up on his leg and struck a chord. “Here we go, let’s go.”

He tapped out the beat, one measure for free, and started to play. Slightly self-conscious, I hummed along with him. Before long I realized I was too soft to hear over the guitar, so I opened my mouth and started vocalizing without lyrics. When I did this Ryū glanced at me and grinned, happy and free, and before I knew it, before I even realized what I was doing, I began to sing.

「黒い瞳の奥神秘に満ちた微笑みを 浮かべる /
悲鳴とともに流れる 苦しみを見つめて…」

By the end of the piece I was thoroughly out of breath, and so was he. He struck the final chord one note at a time, stringing out the beauty of the sound, and then it was over.

With the sudden absence of the music, the waves crashing onto the sand before us seemed shockingly loud.

Ryū set his guitar down, rested his hands on his thighs, and fought for air. He didn’t even try to hide it from me. I watched with concern, quieting my own breathing. I wondered if he really shouldn’t be playing at all.

After a few minutes, he seemed to feel better. He looked over at me and said softly, almost apologetically, “I don’t breathe so well anymore. And I get tired really easily.”

“That’s okay,” I said. Immediately I gave myself a mental kick: what kind of a response is that? He’s dying, you idiot. But Ryū didn’t seem to notice or care.

“That was fun, right?” he said, smiling a little.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “This song sounds pretty good on acoustic.”

“It was more beautiful than I had imagined.”

“That was your first time playing it?” I asked, shocked.

“Yup, first time. I had a lot of free time in the hospital, so I just memorized a lot of sheet music. I forgot a couple of the chords, though, but you – you stayed strong the whole way through.”

“Oh, well…” I blushed.

Ryū smiled at me again, eyes sparkling. “You’re a pretty good singer, you know.”

I grinned in my embarrassment. “The original was better.”

He shrugged, leaned back against the bench, and turned his gaze to the sea. “It’s a different style of music, professional and casual. Can’t be compared. I think that’s what I loved the most about my old band – we valued both styles equally. Maybe that’s why people liked us so much… maybe it’s the reason they’re famous now, too.”

“Are you jealous?” I asked curiously. “That they’re famous, I mean.”

He shook his head slightly. “When I see video of their live concerts, of course I wish I could be on stage playing with them. But there are no bad feelings between us. Life just put us on a different path. I’m glad that they didn’t stop their careers waiting for me to get better. If they did that, they probably wouldn’t exist today. See, Kishi, sometimes good things initially manifest as bad things, and sometimes bad things initially manifest as good things, and you can’t really tell which is which. So when it comes to life as a whole, the best you can do is just accept anything that comes to you, and keep moving forward.”

“I wish my teachers and classmates were as smart as you are,” I said honestly. “Everything they say is so empty and boring, and here you are talking about the best way to live.”

This made him laugh a little. “Well, everyone is different, you know? Most people eventually learn how best they should live, but some people learn it when they’re sixteen and others learn it when they’re sixty. That’s just how it is.”

He brushed a hand through his hair then, somewhat absentmindedly. “By the way, your voice reminds me of the vocalist in my old band.”

“Really?”

“Maybe it’s just because I miss him… but no, I think you really do sound like him when he was around your age. He could really project… he was amazing, very heartfelt. When he sang a sad or emotional song, you could really feel his pain, even though he was just a kid. We were all just kids…”

At this point, Ryū seemed to be in a reminiscent kind of mood, so I decided to limit my responses to subtle nods and appropriate I’m listening noises. I wanted to let him talk because it seemed like he needed to, but I also selfishly wanted to get my questions about him answered. I shut my mouth and made myself an attentive audience to his story.

Without looking at me, Ryū gave a slight, misty smile. “It’s funny, I’m talking about our vocalist in the past tense, even though he’s currently one of the most famous singers in the country… Anyway, I miss him a lot. He was our band leader, you know, and he was great at leading because he had such a good feeling for people. He always made sure to listen to us. Whenever there was a decision to make, he would talk to each of us separately, and he’d ask us our opinions. And after hearing all of our thoughts, he would make his decision based on that. Sometimes it would be contrary to what we wanted, but it always worked out for the best, because he could tell that we were being too passionate or too excited or too angry, and he would tone us down.”

Ryū paused a moment to see if I would respond, and when I didn’t he slowly, quietly continued on. “A month after I got sick, after the shock had worn off and we had all basically accepted that I was going to die, he called us all in for a little meeting in my hospital room. Imagine it — a bunch of sixteen year-old amateurs, sitting around a hospital bed, trying to plan their future. He looked at me and said, tell me what you want to do. And I said, I want to keep playing. So they all supported me in trying to keep playing. A few weeks later we had a pretty big concert at a venue in the city — small, actually, but big for our standards at the time. I went, and I played, and I almost killed myself. I collapsed on stage, and they had to call an ambulance to take me to the hospital. Then a couple days later our vocalist called another little meeting, and he looked at me and again he said, tell me what you want to do. And I knew he would support me, no matter what I said. They were all ready to follow me, to care for me, to put their potential careers aside for me. And it was because of that that I chose to leave the band. I looked at him and I said, I quit. I said, find another rhythm guitarist and go be famous. So that’s what they did.”

He sighed a little. “Heck of a background story, right? Sixteen years old…”

All of this talking seemed to be wearing him out; he let his sentence trail off and closed his eyes. Scared, I quickly blurted out, “Thank you.”

He raised his head and looked at me with surprise. “Thank you for what?”

“For telling me all of that.”

“Oh…” Ryū shut his eyes again. “You’re welcome, Kishi, but I really shouldn’t have.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Why not?”

“What is it, the illness that you have?”

He blinked, as if the question had thrown him off guard. “There isn’t any name for it,” he said after a moment. “That surprises you, right? You would think there are names for all the things out there that can kill you. But no, there isn’t one for this.”

I tried to wrap my head around this idea, but I couldn’t imagine it, living with a nameless disease.

“It used to frustrate me a lot,” Ryū admitted tiredly. “It’s not like I want to have cancer or anything, but I want to be able to put a name to why I’m hurting, you know? I became very close with one of my doctors, and I would talk to her about this all the time…”

He trailed off and closed his eyes. I bit my lips and watched him breathe, regretting asking the question in the first place, but at the same time desperate to hear an explanation.

A couple of minutes later Ryū continued, “My doctor says that while it hasn’t been scientifically observed, she has felt that rates of such unnamed diseases and chronic conditions have been on the rise. You can see this everywhere… people are complaining about all of these unexplainable aches and pains, and we have no idea how to make them feel better.”

“There’s this kid at school who throws up all the time,” I recalled.

Ryū nodded. “Things like that. My doctor posited two explanations for this… First of all, western medicine has taken over much of the world, but she believes that it’s very one-sided. It’s based on treatment with – as I said – knives and needles and chemicals, and it labels anything different as pseudo-science.”

“Like acupuncture?”

“Yes. Traditional medicine. Anything non-Western, they’ll say is scientifically unproven, a hoax – but just think about it… Societies have been around for hundreds of years practicing traditional medicine. Would they really still be doing it if it didn’t work for them? Anyway, her point was that western medicine is flawed, and maybe that’s one reason why everybody is so uncontrollably sick.”

He paused, took a big breath, and went on, “She also pointed to all the toxins and chemicals we humans are putting into the environment. We come into contact with them, and we eat the animals that come into contact with them, and the toxins slowly build up in our bodies and cause problems we don’t know how to fix.”

I thought about it. “That makes a lot of sense to me,” I said.

“Yeah… me too.” Then, very abruptly, he said, “Kishi, get out of here.

The remark shocked me; I looked straight at him, terrified. His face was kind of pale now, and his voice had been steadily decreasing in strength. I asked with genuine concern, “Ryū, are you okay?” Then I mentally kicked myself again. Of course he’s not okay!

“I’m tired…”

He let the sentence linger and closed his eyes.

I had more questions – I was still curious – but this time I clamped my mouth shut. He really didn’t look well. I watched him with care, trying to tell if he was in pain, but all I could see was that it was clearly costing him effort to breathe. Something about the very idea of that scared me. Breathing – something normally so effortless, so completely mindless, yet so essential to life. And here Ryū was struggling to do it.

It suddenly occurred to me that he might die here.

I turned my gaze to the ocean, trying to process this. The idea tore at my heart. I’d only known Ryū for two days, but I already admired him so much, and he had been so friendly to me… And it all just seemed so unfair. Why did he have to die? Why did he have to be handed this illness? He deserved so much to become famous with the rest of his band, and yet here he was, alone on this beach, dying.

Wait. No… he’s not alone.

If he’s going to die, I’ll be here for him, I decided. I’ll stay. Even if it hurts me to watch, I’ll stay. I’ll forget about my exams, I’ll skip classes. Today, tomorrow… however long.

Having made this pact I turned to look at him; his breathing, though still uneasy, had smoothed over into the heavy rhythm of sleep. The sea breeze had blown some of his long hair over his face. I watched him, thinking, feeling, trying not to feel.

The steady crash of the waves onto shore calmed me – after a few minutes I relaxed. Believing Ryū was not in any danger of dying at this present moment, I turned away and closed my eyes.

And without meaning to, rocked by the push and pull of the sea, I too fell asleep.

I never saw the musician again.

I woke up from my nap some thirty minutes later to the feel of a misty rain on my face and a sense of emptiness beside me. I bolted upright, panicking. Ryū was gone. He’d taken his violin with him, but he had left his guitar on the sand.

For the next few days I waited on the beach for him to return. I skipped my classes and just sat there, staring out at the sea, listening to the same old rock music through my headphones. I kept hoping and hoping he would come back – but he never did.

And if I really thought about it, I knew why.

I wanted to die in a place where no one knew of me, where no one would care about my death and no one would remember me afterwards…

I replayed our conversations over and over in my head. I picked through his words, focusing on whatever had stood out to me in the moment. And I cried.

Kishi, I’m sorry to throw this on you, but I came here to die, he said.

I should not be alive, he said.

Life is short, right? he said.

Kishi, get out of here.

A week after Ryū had gone, I slung his guitar on my back, boarded a train, and left for Sendai.

3 thoughts on “Songs Without End: A Short Story

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