The composer, with his tape recorder, crossed the barricades at night and crawled through the hills into the land his grandfather had left. Between the clotheslines, three cottages were still inhabited. Three old women still tended gardens and made soup and dusted—once a month—the trinkets of those killed. Once a month, they made their way through empty houses, empty streets, empty stores, empty churches. Once a month, they spoke the names of the dead.
The composer surprised the three women by speaking their dialect, knowing their words for spoon and daffodil and hat. At first they feared he’d been sent by the dictator as a spy—yet who but the son of a native son would know the story of the leaf child, the rhyme about the wolf maiden?
He lived with them a week and recorded (this had been his purpose) their songs, of which they were the world’s last three singers. A song of lamentation, a song of mourning, a song of protest and despair. They had forgotten the song for weddings.
Back across the border, the composer set scores around the songs, made records of string instruments wailing behind the women’s voices. He had preserved, before its last breath, their culture.
When the dictator learned of the record, he became enraged. Not over the songs (what was a lamentation, to a dictator?) but over the evidence of life in a village he had been assured was wiped out in its entirety.
One October morning, he sent his men to finish the job.
(But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I? I’ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number.)
Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association’s Novel of the Year award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. "The Singing Women" is from her short story collection, Music for Wartime, forthcoming this June from Viking.