Early in the morning, as was his habit, the man went out to change the countdown calendar that stood in the town square. He put a nine in the ones place and a four in the tens place.
Opening Ceremony for the Olympics in 149 Days!
‘Less than five months now’, he murmured to himself. The square was dark, the sky blue black, with just the faintest hint of the coming sunrise to the east. The snow that had fallen last week was mostly gone, lingering only in scattered grey lumps. Withered leaves and bits of trash lay frozen to the bottom of the empty fountain. The shops that lined the square were shuttered and dark, except for a single bulb in front of the man’s door.
The man ran a restaurant that served only breakfast, a business that had been handed down in his family for generations now. He had been entrusted with the task of turning the calendar each day, if for no other reason than he was located right on the square and opened earlier than anyone else. The town had long ago got in the habit of putting up the countdown board in the square, next to the fountain, to mark the days until the beginning of just about any sort of special event. The completion of the observation tower, the approach of a comet, the beginning of the first radio broadcast, the opening of the canal, the first day of trolley service, the opening of an industrial fair, the closing of the town theatre . . . For each of these, the man’s ancestors and relations – great-grandfather, grandfather, great-uncles, father, and elder brothers – had carefully turned the cards, reducing the total by one each day until the number reached zero.
The man himself had performed this duty twice before, once when a foreign dirigible had come to visit and another time for the five-hundredth anniversary of the death of an important man who had been born in the town. Needless to say, however, these had been minor events compared to the splendor of the Olympics. The dirigible was tied up at the abandoned military parade grounds at the edge of town, but it began leaking gas almost the moment it arrived and ended up dangling lifelessly for a long while. As for the great man, no one seemed to know anything about him except that he had been some sort of religious leader.
The Olympics were something else altogether. When the calendar was first set to 365 days, reporters came from the cable television station and the local papers. Tourists had their pictures taken in front of the numbers and the regulars at the man’s restaurant talked of little besides the coming games. Banners were hung from the station, the town hall, the school, the post office and most other important buildings, and the Olympic flag was flown from every flagpole.
In fact, however, the Olympics were to be held in a large city more than fifty kilometers away where they were building the main stadium, the venues for the important events, and the athletes’ village, and the town would play host to just one competition. The townspeople knew this, of course; no matter how enthusiastic they were, their little community could not be compared to the great city where the games were to take place. No one would pay it any more notice than an ink spot spattered at random on the map.
Nevertheless, though it was just the one event, it would be played in the town, and that was undoubtedly an important episode in their history.
Of course, there was no stadium in the town. It was being newly built for the games, though it wasn’t as yet complete. The construction site was surrounded by a high fence, and when the townspeople passed nearby they found themselves filled with anticipation and just a little anxiety about when it would be finished. Despite the large number of cranes and backhoes and tanker trucks, it was difficult to see whether any progress was being made. Perhaps their anxiety was fanned by the fact that the construction was being done on the old parade grounds where the dirigible had docked and deflated.
But the real source of their concern wasn’t the problems with the construction or the curse of the blimp – it was the fact that no one in the town knew what sort of sport was to be played in the stadium once it was completed. The first time they heard the name of the event, they wondered whether such a thing was an Olympic sport. No one had seen a match, either recorded or live, and no one knew anything about the rules. The more random facts trickled in – that it was a team sport played with a ball, that it required a large playing field, that matches lasted several hours – the more difficult it became to grasp.
Several men who were working at the construction site came to the man’s restaurant for breakfast.
‘How’s it going out there?’
‘Is that roof really going to work?’
‘What are those two ridiculously tall poles?’
The other customers peppered them with questions, perhaps trying to relieve some of their anxieties, but the answers were vague at best.
Even after the calendar had passed one hundred and fifty days the construction on the stadium seemed, as if someone or something was hesitant to reveal the true nature of the sport to be played there. Perhaps there was no such sport, and the construction was being delayed simply out of fear that the fraud would be discovered – or at least that’s what the townspeople found themselves thinking. Then they would have to shake their heads to drive away the doubts and remind themselves that this minor event would indeed take place here, the event that was just the right scale for their little community.
No one could quite recall who had first made the suggestion, but it was decided in the usual fashion that the countdown calendar would be decorated with the Harmonica Hare, a local species that had been named the official town mascot. The Harmonica Hare had once been quite common and was easily spotted almost anywhere in the hills surrounding the town, but a generation ago it had become extinct.
It had been a perfectly ordinary species, about thirty centimetres in length with reddish-brown fur. Its powerful hind legs had made it appear almost round when at rest. The ears were laid back, lined up behind the head, the eyes were grey and surrounded by a border of white fur. It was said that the name had to do with the hare’s habit of licking its front legs and using them to clean its mouth and whiskers – a motion that looked as though it were playing the harmonica.
The man knew they had been valued for their meat, for their pelts and for one more thing besides: the stones that could be found in their stomachs – exactly two in each hare. These little gastroliths, about the size of a chickpea, were used by the hares in digesting plant matter. They were perfectly smooth, jet-black spheres, polished by long months of rolling around the animals’ stomachs. It was thought that the stones had medicinal properties and this had hastened the extinction of the hares. The townspeople had gone on shooting them and cutting open their stomachs for the stones until the last Harmonica Hare was no more.
Though the man had never seen the hare, he had seen the stones. His grandfather, who had been a firm believer in their efficacy, had kept several of them in a glass jar that he stored in a cabinet in his bedroom. For years he had put aside a few coins from his cigarette allowance and had used them to buy the stones, one by one, from hunters of his acquaintance. He kept them in the jar in the belief that their magic would protect his family from all manner of disease and distress. What the man remembered about them was their incredibly deep hue. No matter how long he had stared at them, he had never been able to detect anything but blackness in their surface, the purest black imaginable. As a boy, he often thought that they had become so black from spending their whole lives in the darkness of the hare’s stomach, never once being touched by light. He had worried, too, that when they were cut out and exposed to the light, the little stones must have been frightened, and more than once he had gone to his grandfather’s cabinet to push the little jar deeper into the shadows. It wasn’t just the color that attracted him – there was also the perfect roundness. He was sure that no human being would have been able to fashion such a smooth, perfect sphere. If he tipped his open palm ever so slightly, the stone would begin to roll about, as if trying to find its way back to the darkness.
The man had ingested a stone only once, when he was a boy of six and had contracted measles. He had been gravely ill and the doctor had told his parents that his life was in danger, but his grandfather had trusted in the stones. As the boy lay writhing with fever, he had opened the lid of the jar and taken out a single stone, as if making a supplication to the Harmonica Hare. Then he had begun to grind the stone in a mortar. It was extremely hard, as though the infinitely compacted darkness were resisting with all its might, but his grandfather was determined and had continued to work the pestle. In time, the rattling sound became a crunching and finally a true grinding, like the rhythm of some song coming to him from the distant land of dreams.
‘Oh!’ the boy had called from his fever. ‘Do you hear the hares playing?’
Whether it was thanks to the stone or not, the boy soon recovered and the measles had left no scars. His grandfather, however, had died of a cerebral haemorrhage, as though taken in place of his grandson.
It was some years after the Harmonica Hares had become extinct that a study was published showing that the stones had no medicinal value. Even then, however, almost no one thought to feel sorry that this information hadn’t come out sooner and thereby saved the hares. With so many kinds of rabbits in the world, few people worry whether there is one species more or less. Nevertheless, the man could never bring himself to throw out the little bottle of stones – worthless though they might be – and left them where they were as a memento of his grandfather.
The countdown calendar consisted of a cartoon image of the Harmonica Hare cut out of a metal sheet with a flip panel for the number suspended by a chain from the animal’s ears. The same sign had been used for many years, but the town fathers took the bold step of having a whole new version made for the occasion of the Olympics. Balanced on its hind legs, eyes wide open, ears erect, in all it stood about a hundred and fifty centimetres high. The metal fur had been painted pale beige, many shades lighter than the real hare, the ears were pink inside, and of course the front paws were clasping a harmonica.
The calendar hanging from its ears somehow made the hare look uneasy, as though it had no idea how this big board had come to be on its head or what it should do about it. Won’t someone come and take this thing off me? – it seemed to say, but no one did and it could only go on playing its harmonica for all it was worth. Or so it seemed to the man.
When he went to turn over the numbers, the man always greeted the hare with a quiet apology. ‘I know it’s hard’, he would say under his breath. But at least he took some comfort in the fact that he was lightening the animal’s burden each time he paid a visit. He placed great store in the idea that the weight of the number the hare had to support was lessening along with the number of days until the start of the Olympics. After he had turned over the number each day, he would fiddle with the chain, as though trying to make sure that the weight was properly balanced, that the chain was not causing the animal any pain.
It was never quite clear why the restaurant that had been handed down in the man’s family served only breakfast. From the time of the man’s great grandfather, when the business had first opened on the town square, the doors had opened between six and six thirty in the morning and were closed again at eleven. Even on the busiest days of the year, during summer holidays or festivals or Christmas, when business would have been most profitable, the doors closed and the shutters were rolled down at precisely the same hour.
The men in this family shared another trait as well. Whether it was a genetic predisposition or whether it had developed due to long years of keeping early hours, none of them had any tolerance for alcohol. Furthermore, they disliked drunkenness and drunkards with a passion. Perhaps that was the reason they had continued to run a restaurant where the subject of sake never came into play.
The peculiar hours had led some of the children in the town to spread rumours that they were a family of vampires. When he was a boy, the man had been teased in this way, but his grandfather had told him to pay no attention. He offered no excuses or explanations, no proof that they weren’t vampires, and as always the shutters came down at eleven o’clock, as though they were seeking to shut out the light.
The menu was simple. Coffee, tea, assorted baked goods. Fresh juice, eggs, ham, corn flakes, yogurt, oatmeal . . . There was nothing original about it, but they had always been particular about the ingredients they used. The fruit and dairy products came from local suppliers. They chose the best quality, regardless of price, and set extremely strict standards for freshness. The restaurant was also impeccably clean. The kitchen sparkled, the counter and tables were polished daily, and the dishes were washed so often and so thoroughly that the patterns in the china had begun to fade.
The man arrived at the shop by four a.m. at the latest. Tying the strings of his apron tightly in back, he would set to work cleaning the few places his crew had missed the day before. Then he would grind the coffee, chop the fruit and beat the eggs. Next he put out the tablecloths, filled the napkin holders and put the morning newspapers in the binders. At some point the young man from the bakery would arrive, making quick work of delivering the just baked breads to the kitchen. The icing on the cinnamon rolls was always smooth and creamy, the croissants so buttery and crisp you could practically hear them crunch.
The man would urge the delivery boy to stop for a minute for a cup of coffee – he made the first pot of the morning just for that reason – but the young man was still just an apprentice and always seemed to be in a hurry. He would drink the coffee on his feet and call out a cheerful ‘Thanks!’ as he headed off to his next delivery. Then, just about the time the man finished arranging the breads and rolls in the glass case under the counter, the first customer of the morning would wander in. It might be the florist on his way back from the central market or the security guard just getting off the night shift or the old lady who suffers from insomnia. Depending on the season, the sky might be getting light, the first rays of the sun falling on the Harmonica Hare. When they did, the man would glance out once again to check the number on the calendar.
The man had few friends, in part because he had to be up early and never went out in the evenings. Things had been the same with his grandfather, father, and brother. He had few pleasures either, beyond the joy of cleaning his restaurant to his heart’s content. He had been married in his twenties and his wife had given birth to twin girls, but when his brother died suddenly and he had taken over the restaurant, his relationship with his wife had suffered and they were eventually divorced. She had taken the girls and moved out, and he had lived alone ever since. Pictures of his daughters arrived periodically – school ceremonies, ballet recitals and the like – and though he had been parted from them when they were still small, he found he could still tell them apart no matter how much they grew and changed. But eventually they got married – to wonderful young men – and moved to cities that were even further away than the one hosting the Olympics. He kept their pictures in the same cabinet that held the bottle of stones from the Harmonica Hare.
From time to time the man wondered what would become of his restaurant once he was gone. It was hard to imagine that his own daughters would want to come back to such a tiny town to take over the business, let alone his nieces or nephews. But the thing that worried him most when he thought about closing the restaurant was his duties with the calendar. Even after the Olympics were over, another event could come along at any time. A great man could be celebrating an important birthday. Another dirigible might float into town. And if it did, who would be there to reduce the weight hanging on the hare’s head?
The thought made the man heave a little sigh. He couldn’t help worrying about what would happen after he died – even though he wouldn’t be around to worry. He checked his watch to be sure it was eleven and then rolled down the shutters. The noise and bustle of the square disappeared along with the Harmonica Hare, and the man was left alone in the dark.
Dawn came earlier and earlier, the ice in the fountain melted, different species of birds arrived in the square – and with these changes the number on the sign grew smaller. Even from this distance, they could tell that excitement was building in the host city. The Olympic flame was making its way toward them. The press was allowed in to see a room in the athletes’ village. Olympic stamps went on sale. The uniforms for the volunteer staff were unveiled. But for the townspeople these were no more than distant events and their attention was fixed on their unfinished stadium.
It was, indeed, still unfinished, but they could tell now that it was neither round nor oval, nor was it a proper building like a gymnasium. Surrounded by a simple fence, the grounds seemed absurdly spacious, and nowhere was there a sign of a goal into which the ball might go. It was understandable, then, that the townspeople were more than a little surprised when the announcement was made one day that the stadium was finished. According to the calendar, there were just seventy-eight days left until the Opening Ceremony.
People began gathering at the old parade grounds to see what had been built. They discovered that the trucks and workers had indeed vanished. Grass had been planted on the field and banners celebrating the completion of the project hung from the fence, but other than that, it was unclear what had changed from a month earlier. Could it really be finished? The thought crossed almost everyone’s mind, but as soon as it did it brought with it their deeper doubt that no such sport really existed, and so they bit their tongues and chose their words carefully.
‘Spacious, isn’t it?’
‘Wonder how many people it can hold? Thousands, at least.’
‘What do you suppose those white lines are for?’
As they pondered the new structure, their eyes drifted up and caught sight of the character for ‘celebration’ on the banners, which somehow seemed to give them a bit of hope. But this, too, was short-lived, since the workers had failed to tie the banners tightly and after a short time they hung limply, with the bright red of the celebratory characters seeming to mock the shoddy display.
Still, the townspeople tried to get in the Olympic spirit, each one in his own way. Some plastered posters wherever they could find space. Others cleaned out the fountain and dyed the water in the five jets the colors of the Olympic rings. And when they heard that some countries might not participate due to lack of funds, they held bazaars to raise money to donate to foreign Olympic committees. They remodeled the display shelves in the souvenir stores to hold Olympic products, and several restaurants began serving discounted Olympic menus. At school the children were busy practicing the official Olympic song.
Meanwhile, the man continued to turn over the cards on the calendar. He knew from experience that the pace of the countdown seemed to speed up considerably once the number had changed from three places to two, but in the case of the Olympics this proved to be truer still. After the number went below one hundred, the man spent even more time adjusting the balance between the calendar board and the ears. If he noticed that the wind was causing the spray from the fountain to hit the hare, he would go out and move it away; and he didn’t hesitate to scold thoughtless tourists who accidentally kicked the sign or knocked it with their bags. Once, when a little girl dropped her ice cream cone on the hind leg, he was out to clean it off before it had melted.
The officials in the town hall wrote a pamphlet about the game to be played in their stadium and distributed it to the citizens in an attempt to allay their anxieties about not knowing the rules. Unfortunately, the pamphlet had somewhat the opposite effect. The Section Chief for the town office, who’d received explanations directly from the Competition Manager for the Organizing Committee had spent a good deal of time and effort studying the rule book for the game before sitting down to write the pamphlet, a carefully crafted, sixteen-page document, fully illustrated with drawings made by the Section Chief himself.
The game is played with a ball, but this is not a sport in which the ball is carried toward a goal nor is it hit back and forth on a fixed court. Points are scored not by the ball but by the movement of the players.
Oh dear! Such was the reaction of nearly every person in town who read the first line of the pamphlet. Soccer, hockey, ping pong, tennis – they thought of all the sports they knew in an attempt to conjure up an image of the game. It was played with a ball, but the ball wasn’t as important as the players. So how would the players move around that enormous field to score points? Slightly discouraged, they read on to the next line, but the explanation grew more puzzling still.
Nonetheless, the ball plays an important role. Its location determines the movement of the players.
For days, the townspeople devoted themselves to the study of the pamphlet. On living room sofas, during coffee breaks, on park benches, they could be seen flipping through the sixteen carefully stapled pages. In addition to the relationship between the ball and the players, more baffling points emerged. The length of the match is not limited to a set time or the total points scored. A match ends only when both teams have achieved twenty-seven ‘outs’. Or The thrower is considered a ‘pitcher’ when in contact with the thrower’s mat but becomes a ‘fielder’ when he breaks contact with the mat. Or When a scuffle breaks out on field, all players are required to join in and try to calm the disturbance.
The more they read, the deeper their confusion grew, and for some the game actually began to seem frightening. The player in one illustration holding a long club seemed to be anxious to join a ‘scuffle,’ and a few players were even wearing protective masks. Worse still, perhaps, was the blank look on the faces of the players in the drawings. They seemed so different from the way the townspeople had imagined Olympic athletes – though some of this may have been due to the Section Chief’s rather crude artistic style. And finally, there were the unsportsmanlike and slightly alarming words that peppered the rules: sacrifice, steal, rundown, pickoff, squeeze.
On his day off, the man went out to see the stadium. The old parade grounds had been completely transformed. A circuit around the exterior fence took longer than he would have expected. A number of other people were simply wandering about as he was; families were having their pictures taken in front of the main gate; couples lounged on the banks of the nearby canal. The stadium seemed to be quite different depending on the angle from which it was viewed. The high concrete wall on one side gave way suddenly to a low fence, the view opening up just where the curve of the ellipse was most pronounced.
The interior was still empty, with not a soul to be seen either in the spectator seats or on the field. The only features of note were the straight lines that had been traced in a square on the grass and the white plates that studded the corners. The roof that hung out over some of the seats cast a deep shadow on the field, but the new grass had barely started to grow and looked patchy in places. Leaning against the fence, the man gazed at the scene for some time.
The dirigible had been tethered right here, in the center of the new field. As the mayor had greeted the visitors, an ominous sound could be heard from nearby and the balloon had begun to deflate. It was unclear whether there was some technical problem or whether moving it was simply more trouble than it was worth, but for whatever reason it was left where it fell for a long time. The magnificent inflated form became a wrinkled, shriveled shell that resembled nothing so much as an enormous piece of garbage. The townspeople, who had watched the countdown calendar and greeted the balloon with such enthusiasm, lost interest almost immediately, and the hare was put away in the storeroom of the town hall. No one seemed interested in repairing the dirigible and it sat at the parade grounds growing more and more forlorn. Rainy days were the worst. Puddles would collect in the wrinkles and all traces of its former glory were erased.
The man couldn’t recall when the thing had disappeared. The day came, however, when he suddenly realized it was gone. Perhaps they had repaired it and it had flown away. Or perhaps it had finally been carted off to the landfill. No one seemed to care one way or the other. Most people acted as though the thing had never existed in the first place.
Just the way they do with an animal that goes extinct, thought the man. Just the way they did with the Harmonica Hare. As he flipped the numbers on the calendar, he wondered how the very last animal had died. It had been a clever species, so he was convinced that rabbit would have known that it was the last of its kind. Still, some tiny bit of hope must have kept it running through the hills. Perhaps it had heard a rustling in the underbrush, turned to see footprints in the snow, gone over to sniff at them – only to have its hopes dashed. The other hare would always be a different species, the others would always run away when they saw the harmonica. The snowy hills were again silent.
He might have played his harmonica in the darkness. Perhaps no one had been listening, but he had played on with no more purpose in mind than sending the beautiful tones out into the night. The little harmonica glimmered in the moonlight, its quiet music floating off into the distance, barely disturbing the profound quiet, and there in the deeper darkness inside the hare, the two little stones rolled about as if enjoying the concert, as if intent on giving comfort to the lone animal. The two little stones that could cure a child’s measles.
The man turned away and left the stadium behind him. The last rays of sun lit up the parade grounds and the sky began to glow. He needed to get home before nightfall. The calendar would be waiting for him again in the morning.
Opening Ceremony for the Olympics in nine Days!
That was the first day that athletes arrived in the town to practice at the stadium. Though they knew that the real climax would come when the calendar read 0, the practice day promised to be the most exciting since the countdown had begun. The players came by bus from the Olympic Village and went straight out to the stadium. The practice was not open to the public, but in their excitement the townspeople were unable to stay away. They lined the sidewalks to welcome the players as they filed off the buses, some cheering, others whistling, and still others beating drums. When the officials saw this enthusiasm, they decided to play a demonstration game in the afternoon and open it to the public.
The townspeople streamed out to the stadium. When they finally got inside, it seemed even bigger than they had imagined and the sky seemed somehow closer. The sky! Not a puff of cloud anywhere and filled with early summer sunlight. Unsure which seats would offer the best views of the game, the people spread out around the stadium, finding a place that suited them and settling in to watch.
Before long the players came running out on the field, but no matter how enthusiastic they seemed there was no hiding the fact that the enormous playing area was even more sparsely populated than the spectator seats. They were so far away from the stands that it was impossible to see what sort of looks they had on their faces, but the three lined up on the grass against the fence seemed especially forlorn – or maybe even bored – unable as they were to talk with their teammates or even cheer them on. But for the spectators, the players’ expressions were the least of their problems. If their attention wandered for even a moment, they ran the risk of losing track of the ball itself – which seemed impossibly small given the immense size of the arena.
In the very first moments of the game it was clear that the sport they were watching was even more complicated than they had imagined. The few prudent people who had kept their pamphlets could be seen thumbing frantically through the pages, but to no avail. Their confusion only seemed to grow worse. When were points being scored? Which team was winning? Should they be cheering now? Or booing? Which team were they rooting for? Not one person in the crowd had any idea.
Contrary to expectations, it proved to be a very quiet sport. The players spent a great deal more time standing still than they did moving about. Except for the two who were forever playing catch, the others often came on the field and went back off having hardly touched the ball. Almost as soon as a player started running, he stopped again, and players never seemed to yell or bump into one another. The only sound was the occasional dry crack as the club hit the ball. How would a ‘scuffle’ ever break out when almost nothing ever happened?
An hour passed, then two, but the game went on. The townspeople began to worry. When would it end? The enthusiasm that had greeted the players when they arrived in the town had long since vanished and the game had frankly become a bit boring. The people in the stands grew weary and restless and even a bit irritated. Still, it wouldn’t do to be rude to the officials who had shown such kindness, so they did their best to keep their spirits up. The people who had copies of the pamphlet found the line about the game ending only when each team had twenty-seven outs and they clung to it like a talisman. But still the game dragged on, and the words began to seem less like a magical charm and more like a curse.
Then at some point the sky suddenly seemed to darken, gray clouds streamed in from beyond he canal, and it began to rain. People who were seated elsewhere in the stadium dashed to the roofed section, but even over the sound of the drops hitting the roof, they could hear the announcer saying that play had been suspended. The players had already disappeared and puddles had begun to form on the field. Limp, damp, pamphlets stuck to the seats here and there.
‘What a shame. It was such a good game.’
‘But you can’t play in the rain.’
The townspeople made a show of regret for the officials, but inside they breathed a sigh of relief.
Opening Ceremony for the Olympics in Zero Days!
No matter how large the number, if you continue to reduce it by one, eventually you reach zero. This was the thought that invariably occurred to the man on the last day of calendar duty. Three was followed by two, which was followed by one, and then zero. That was only natural.
However, for the townspeople this was difficult to believe. They woke to a feeling of tremendous excitement and perhaps uneasiness and they gathered in the square to be sure that the numbers had behaved as expected, that the calendar had actually reached zero. With looks of wonder on their faces, they ran their fingers over the countdown panel and embraced the rabbit’s ears and rejoiced at the magical zero, without ever once giving thought to the man who had brought them to it.
A stage had been constructed, with chairs for the brass band and the VIPs set out in neat rows. Banners bordered in artificial flowers fluttered in the breeze beneath a bright blue sky. Indeed, the town had not seen so much as a wisp of cloud since the afternoon of the demonstration game.
The man stood behind his counter as usual, making breakfast for his customers. There were fewer of them than usual – perhaps the excitement had robbed people of their appetite – but the man had ground coffee and fried eggs and squeezed juice for the regulars who could be counted on no matter what. If he glanced out the window from time to time, it was not to check on the progress of the ceremony but to be sure that the hare was safe.
To mark the beginning of the real Opening Ceremony in the city, five planes were scheduled to fly over the main stadium and trace the Olympic rings in the sky in the five official colors. Those same planes would pass over the town on the way back to their base and the town hall had decided to use that flyover as the signal to start their own ceremony. It would, of course, be nothing like the grand event at the Olympic stadium, but they were playing host to this one Olympic sport and the people of the town, from the mayor to the smallest child in school, were determined to mark the occasion with appropriate solemnity.
The members of the brass band filed onto the stage, instruments in hand. The children who were to sing the official song stood in their little uniforms, lined up neatly behind the band. The mayor and the other town worthies took their places of honor at the center of the stage. The public address system had been double-checked, the jets of the fountain, not to be outdone by the skywriting planes, were gushing Olympic-hued water and the fireworks display was set to be launched from the banks of the canal. Everything was ready for the planes.
Then the people waited, straining to hear the sound of engines. The bandleader who would signal the downbeat for the opening fanfare clutched his baton and fidgeted nervously. The oboe player licked his lips every few seconds, while the xylophonist struggled to hold down the pages of her score, which threatened to fly away on the breeze. The children clutched their flags. Some way off from the square, the fireworks technician stared intently at the button that would set off his display. Time seemed to stand still.
Were the planes late? At some point this thought occurred to one impatient soul in the crowd, and in an instant it had swept through every other head present, like a wave rushing to shore. Perhaps headwinds had slowed them down? The trusting people in the crowd found ways to hold their doubts in check. The sky was utterly clear, without so much as a bird in sight and the square was deathly silent. Surely the sound of engines would break that silence at any moment. They stood staring upwards, forgetting even to blink. The slightest sigh brought irritated looks. Some people began hearing ringing in their ears. But the only real sound was the splashing of water in the fountain. Perhaps the planes had forgotten the flyover, or perhaps they had crashed – at last their heads were filled with doubts that crowded out everything else.
The sun rose higher in the sky and beat down mercilessly on the people in the square. The bandleader’s hand began to cramp, and the oboist’s lips were cracked and bleeding. The xylophonist’s score fluttered up in the wind. Hypnotized by the sunlight reflecting off the instruments, one of the children fainted and at that moment the fireworks technician, flinched and pressed the button. The fireworks shot up and disappeared instantly in the bright sky, leaving behind nothing more than their forlorn swishing noise and the smell of gunpowder.
As the fireworks died away, someone in the crowd shouted and pointed. All eyes followed that pointing finger and came to rest on the Harmonica Hare. It had fallen over in the crush, and the man was clutching it tightly, struggling to right it again. The ears were bent, having been trampled under countless feet and its hands had lost their harmonica. The zero was smudged and dirty.
‘It’s the wrong day!’
‘The Opening Ceremony is tomorrow!’
‘The calendar was wrong!’
A stream of abuse poured over the hare.
‘Is it a leap year?’
‘He must have turned over two cards at once.’
‘We’ve been had!’
‘What a stupid rabbit!’
The man gripped the hare and tried to free it from under trampling feet, all the while looking around frantically for the harmonica. For a long time after, he kneeled there in the crowd, struggling to save the hare and find the harmonica no one would ever hear again.
Photograph © Air Wolf Hound