– “Perpetuum Mobile” by Simon Jeffes (19 February 1949 – 11 December 1997) and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra
Menwy noticed the rider carried at his saddle bow a golden harp, the fairest he had ever seen. He got to his feet and strode up to the horseman to admire the instrument more closely.
“Alas, friend, ” said Menwy, “I have no strings to match yours. Mine are of the common kind, but yours are spun of gold and silver. If it plays as nobly as it looks, you should be proud of it.”
“In my country,” said the rider, “this would be deemed the meanest of instruments. But since it seems to please you, so you shall have it. For the sake of a fair bargain, though, give me yours in exchange.”
“Now what a marvelous place the world is!” Menwy answered lightly. “Here’s a fellow who rides out of nowhere, and asks nothing better than to do me a favor. And would I be so ungrateful as to turn it down? Come, friend, before there’s any talk of trading this and that, let’s hear a tune from that handsome harp of yours.”
At this, the rider stiffened and raised a hand as if the bard had threatened him; but, recovering himself, he replied:
“Prove the instrument for yourself, harper. Take it in your hands, listen to its voice.”
Menwy shook his head. “No need, friend. For I can tell you now, even though yours sang like a nightingale, I’d rather keep my own. I know its ways, and it knows mine.”
The rider’s eyes flickered for an instant. Then he replied:
“Harper, your fame has spread even as far as my realm. Scorn my gift as you will. But come with me and I swear you shall serve a king more powerful than any in Prydain. His bard you shall be, and you shall have a seat of honor by his throne.”
“How could that be?” asked Menwy, smiling. “Already I serve a ruler greater than yours, for I serve my music.”
Now Menwy was a poet and used to seeing around the edge of things. Al this while, he had been watching the gray-cloaked horseman; and now as he looked closer, the rider and the golden harp seemed to change before his eyes. The frame of the instrument, which had appeared so fair, he saw to be wrought of dry bones, and the strings were serpents poised to strike.
Though Menwy was as brave as any man, the sight of the rider’s true face behind its mask of flesh froze the harper’s blood. Nevertheless, he did not turn away, nor did his glance waver as he replied:
“I see you for what you are, Lord of Death. And I fear you, as all men do. For all that, you are a weak and pitiful king. You can destroy, but never build. You are less than the humblest creature, the frailest blade of grass. For these live, and every moment of their lives is a triumph over you. Your kingdom is dust; only the silent ending of things, never the beginning.”
At that, Menwy took his harp and began to play a joyful melody. Hearing it, the horseman’s face tightened in rage; he drew his sword from its sheath and with all his might he struck at the bard.
But the blow missed its mark and instead struck the harp, shattering it to bits. Menwy, however, flung aside the pieces, threw back his head, and laughed in defiance, calling out:
“You fail, Death-Lord! You destroy the instrument, but not its music. With all your power you have gained only a broken shell.”
In that moment, when the harp had been silence, arose the songs of birds, the chiming of brooks, the humming of wind through grass in leaves; and all these voices took up the strands of melody, more beautiful than before.
And the Lord of Death fled in terror of life.
– Lloyd Alexander, “The Founding: And Other Tales of Prydain”, January 30 1924 – May 17 2007