Fulghum's Synthitar

By Kevin Kvas

It was Uncle Vanya's sincerest conviction that all the particles in the universe had conspired to make his life miserable, he having been born into the poorest family on the smallest, most worthless colony any harvest moon had ever seen. The inhabitants were mostly old, dying people who refused to die. This meant poor business for Uncle Vanya.

In his cluttered one-room compartment, Vanya was applying the finishing touches to a solid but unadorned child-sized burial-pod when Moisey Etolraf, the livestock farmer, leaned in and said, "Uncle Vanya, Raggett is working later tonight. Will you replace him at tonight's mass?"

Though the request immediately lifted Vanya's spirits--he loved playing synthitar in the Researchers' Orchestra--he only grunted in vague affirmation and did not look up from his crafting. Vanya despised his work, financially insufficient as it was, but the burial-pods that he made from grounded space junk still always came to possess an admirable, even aesthetic quality. Not that a corpse's family had much choice: Uncle Vanya was the only carpenter of corpse-pods in the colony. And all families of the dead had to use his services, for there was only one tradition concerning the deceased--the tradition that everyone followed: One should invest money into launching beloved corpses into outer space so as to facilitate their spiritual reunion with the entity of their origin, the Grand Spirit of the Universe.

The plump, scruffy face of Moisey Etolraf nodded its approval, then furrowed its brow at the small burial-pod that Vanya was crafting. "Who is that for? Has a child died without my knowing? Oh, dear, it wasn't Fulghum, was it? I'd be down two players...."

Vanya felt feverish at the mention of the boy's name. Fulghum was the Head Researcher's son. The name not only conjured for Vanya his heated hatred for the wealthy Researcher families, but also infected him with the lucid image of playing in the smelly, sweaty orchestra, Fulghum's flute wailing flawlessly into his left ear, throwing off the holographic projections of Vanya's synthitar. No, Vanya thought, the accursed red-haired Researcher boy is not dead. It was a burial-pod he would not have minded crafting.

Shaking his head and not bothering to keep his voice steady, Vanya said, "The coffin is for Mr. and Mrs. Gleick."

Moisey scratched his large cheeks. "It is the Gleick child who has died?"

"No. This is just a pre-order."

Moisey laughed. "A pre-order on a child's coffin? Their children are getting big now!"

Vanya shrugged. "I don't ask when it comes to this thankless business. I do it, I get it over with."

"You're a hard-worker, Uncle Vanya," Moisey agreed, smiling broadly, and then he was off.

It was the sound of his own nickname that now angered Vanya. Nobody could have said where it had come from. He was not an uncle; he had no nephews or nieces; he was not even a father. He was no longer even a husband. And he was sure as hell not heart-warming.

Just a week ago, his wife had called for him:

"Vanya, I am dying."

Vanya recalled the image that had been replaying in his mind ever since: going to her bed and seeing her face bright with fever--but with also fever of another brand. Upon seeing it, Vanya at first could not recognize what it was; indeed, at first he could not even recognize her: she looked happy. She was not smiling, but there was an aura about her, a glow of tranquility as she slowly faded from awareness and existence. So happy was she to get away from the depressing one-room compartment, the piles of uncompleted space-pods, and the product of social necessity that was her husband.

In the last minutes before her death, Vanya's wife had said, "I once was pregnant, you know. It was a miscarriage."

Vanya had thought it was delusion speaking: he remembered no such thing.

He made no profit from the pod he was obligated to build for her.


For no apparent reason, Uncle Vanya's hatred for the boy Fulghum increased with every sight or mention of him. Vanya would contradict him on principle and insult him at every opportunity. Others thought the quarrels childish. Others thought Vanya had chosen a cheap, indirect way to insult the Research Director. But that night, after the orchestra's performance, immediately forgetting the beauty of the music, Vanya was so angry (with himself) that he tried to punch Fulghum.

The red-haired boy stepped back in time, however, knocking over a music stand as he did so.

"I respect your talent," the boy said, "but..." And then he turned away, weeping.

It was these incidents that significantly reduced Vanya's invitations to play in the orchestra--the thing he loved best.


That night, Vanya crept away from the warmth and company of the domed cathedral whose ceiling was the limitless and eternal starry night itself, to sit hunched and alone again in his compartment, which was nothing but a negligence-blackened, tumour-like speck in a short passageway running adjacent to the dank underground cistern, or pillar-ribbed "stomach" of the colony, as many said. He sat as a one-way listener to the soothing echoes of the vast outside chamber's drips and drops, unable to sleep but lacking energy to do anything else (and also lacking things to do). He was overcome by a depression so severe that its effects were thoroughly physical. He could feel the pains between his knees and joints, the heaviness of his reluctant breaths. He felt hungry and thirsty, yet had desire neither to eat nor drink. He was tired, so tired that he couldn't sleep, and yet sleep would have done him no good. It would have only made him more tired, because slowly everything was coming to an end. Slowly, this intestine of a passageway would excrete him, ingloriously, as fertilizer into the graveyard of space.

To Vanya, the end looked bright. The end was his wife's rosy cheeks, a hidden smile between them, glowing in the flickering water-sparked fluorescent lights. It was an aura that had turned her into a different woman, a woman neither of them had ever known or been sensitive towards.

Till the end, till the end, Uncle Vanya thought, grumbling to himself; "We're all made the same in the end, rich or poor, happy or mad," and he dozed off without noticing.


The next day Fulghum came to see Uncle Vanya. Through a mouthful of synth-din, Vanya roared at the boy, "Get away, you! Get out of my sight!"

The skin of his face tight with fear, the red-haired boy answered timidly, "Uncle Vanya, I was looking for you. Moisey Etolraf sent me--he would like to speak with you."

"Why'd he send you?" Vanya growled, some gruel-like substance dripping from his lips. "You, you, you! I can't stand you filthy researchers! I won't go!"

Fulghum flinched, as though expecting Vanya to throw the bowl of food at him. Vanya only threw more curses--"Filth! Scoundrel!"--and the boy promptly left.

Vanya finished eating in angry silence. When he was done, not being able to work since it was Sunday, and anyway not having anything to work on, he took a walk away from the "stomach" of the cistern and wandered aimlessly through the central compound, reminiscing.

As he passed a group of scurrying boys, some called out in jeering tones, "Uncle Vanya! Hey, it's poor Uncle Vanya!"

Everybody knew his name. The uncle of no nephews. No family at all.

He wondered who would take up the burial-pod trade when he passed on--someone would have to. But the only thing good he had ever done in his life, he reasoned, was to not have children. To have had children, and pass onto them the same seventy years of bored, struggling, doomed imprisonment would have been hypocritical to Vanya's sincerest convictions about life. But as he wandered now, the garden shelves of this social nexus of the colony an unimportant blur, so did his mind, and in directions he neither expected nor particularly desired.

Why hadn't he ever just left? Every few months, he knew well, for he had used to make afternoons out of watching them, the same ships that supplied the colony would also take away any dead colonists, locked away as they were in the latest fleet of Vanya's pods, to rightfully bury them in that sacred cemetery that was the universe. Perhaps he could have found a full-time job as a synthitarist aboard such a ship. Or if that hadn't been good enough (he wouldn't have had to stay anywhere), he could have looked for work elsewhere, on a different planet or moon: A larger, richer place with more people and opportunities. He could have even joined the military; that way, at the very least he would join the ranks of corpsehood with a medal of honour strapped to his vest.

He could have just gotten up and left, without telling anyone! Not even his wife!

For a moment Vanya became excitedly transfixed in these ideas, as one does when fantasizing about winning the lottery. But then he woke from his dreams and fell from their great height back down to the dull sensations of reality with which he had been so painfully familiar for seventy years. There was neither point nor possibility of changing his lifestyle now.

He shoved the thoughts away--he wouldn't have wanted to, anyway, he reasoned. How pointless to be regretful--nothing could be changed. He convinced himself that, if given the chance to relive his life differently, he would not. Most certainly not.

As he passed a glassy fountain in the atrium, Vanya suddenly thought of the baby of whom his wife had spoken a week ago. Yes! he thought, upon regarding the tree which twisted at the fountain's centre. It seemed he had not come this way in a long while, or had simply not stopped to look here, despite the smallness of the living compound. There was one. And then we never tried again.

Then an exhaustion came over him like none he had felt before. His mind turned to liquid, and spots fuzzed over his eyes. He wanted to collapse and faint and never wake up. He had to lean forward onto the fountain's edge and wait for his mind to clear, cool wafts from the waters relaxing him.

When his vision at last did clear, his rippling, wrinkled reflection was staring back at him, diaphanously imposed upon the braiding mirror image of stars and of the moon's gas giant that filtered from the atrium's long skylight. It was the droopy face of a man who had scarcely found reason to smile or laugh not out of bitterness in all his life.

A pensive blob of drool dropped involuntarily from the reflection's mouth and bounced back into itself.

That blob of drool would get filtered through the treatment system with the rest of the fountain's--and, in turn, colony's--water supply, Vanya ruminated. It would sink and slink up and down the pipes in an aimless fashion, the pipes within pipes and tubes within tubes that formed this colony, Vanya well knew. Vanya, having lived in the "stomach" all his life, had no delusions about these decorated wall-masks and trees of the atrium, the monuments of the cathedral. When it came down to it, the colony was all one messy nest of tubes, siphoning air and food and goods and people from one temporary place to another, transmitting the food and air and blood inside the inner tubules of those people themselves. Yes, tubes within tubes within channels within conduits for siphoning more tubes; pipes and sewers and thoroughfares leading to nowhere but back to each other's own tubular stomachs like that self-digesting snake. Vanya was well aware of toward which ambit of the digestion equation his body and mind were sludging.

He smiled indifferently now at the already-dispersing blob of drool. Meet you at the bottom, he thought, and limped on home.


That night, Vanya tossed and turned. He got up several times to finger a moaning hum on his synthitar. The device conjured colorful holograms of a family of triangular birds gliding around a pulsing oak tree. The birds whistled lightly along with Vanya's own sounds. A woodpecker kept the beat in an eerie ever-changing time signature.

In the morning Vanya was unable to get out of bed. He did not feel like eating anything.

He decided he should go to the hospital, but did not. It was the feeling of death overwhelming him now. He would die very soon, and there was nothing a doctor could do about it. He decided he would simply lie here, fading away, waiting to join his wife and all his business clients. Death, he had many times decided, did not bother him. In death, one did not have to work or pay taxes any longer, for there were no pressing concerns of survival; no food, no drink, no sleep, no nothing--only eternity. Yes, he would be a body in a vessel soaring for eternity through the great void of space, visiting places no one had ever seen. He would finally be out of this colony, off of this moon, all his dreams fulfilled. If he had really wanted to leave this place earlier on, he might have sold his synthitar, he thought suddenly, the only good thing his father had left him. It would have provided him--

He managed to shift positions at thought of the synthitar. With sudden urgency, as though afraid it were already gone, he turned to look at the instrument, finding it propped as he had left it, against the far wall. He felt more emptiness at the thought of the synthitar's fate: it would lie there to be pillaged and pawned after he died. He had not written a will. Everything he had done, what little he had to show for all his contribution to society, would all ultimately, like piss in water, be given back, returned to the supplier: He foresaw the synthitar collecting dust in a government warehouse.

With great effort, he got to his feet and willed his aching joints over to the instrument. He brought it back to play sitting on the bed. Thinking of the life he had wasted, he sobbed as he urged plaintive sighs and whines from the instrument he had known so well. The playing was beautiful, but the emotional hardship it expressed would have been too unbearable for any casual listener. An array of dancing lights filled the room, each light seeming to contain a memory from Vanya's life. At some points, one of these bubbles or blobs would magnify itself beyond all the others, and small scenes or flashes would play out, the synthitar's odes to its master. Most of the memories were painful ones--these were the ones which preoccupied Vanya--but he only stopped playing at a knock on the door. His immediate reaction was to become furious and scream at whoever had been so thoughtless as to interrupt an old man in his final, lamenting hours before death. He nearly burst into tears at the thought that God or whatever cosmical force could not spare him even one last uninterrupted moment of joy, even though it were joy born of pain. Instead, however, the exhausted Vanya only sighed and answered in a timid voice which required much less effort:

"Come in."

The door opened slowly to reveal the boy named Fulghum. The boy looked clearly spooked; his already fair-skinned face was as stark as winter's wasteland, root-like networks of soft blue veins glowing through. He was trying his best not to make eye contact with the old synthitarist who hated him.

Since the fearful boy looked like he might turn and run at any second, Vanya said quickly, "Fulghum, I am dying. Stay...speak to me. I have never enjoyed your company, but I see that this is how it must be. So...stay and bear witness to a man's final moments."

Fulghum, looking bewildered and afraid, turned slowly back to Vanya and said, spluttering, apparently not having realized what Vanya had just said, "Please, don't.... Moisey sent me again. The Vincent wedding is this Thursday. He needs you to play. He said they can't do without you."

"I am dying!" Vanya said. "I won't play. I will not be here tomorrow, let alone Thursday, let alone...."

And he began to sob, desperately grasping the synthitar again, his only consolation. This time its mournful cries conjured a frighteningly accurate projection of Fulghum. The real Fulghum watched in fear. The Fulghum projection took out its own instrument, though not a flute, but another synthitar, and began playing a more upbeat, if nervous, counter-melody to Vanya's melancholic one. The two melodies sounded dissonant at first, but came together as one gained understanding of their connection.

Fulghum fled the compartment, then, afraid and not knowing what to do. But he had only jogged several steps when he heard Vanya's resonating tune stop with gripping suddenness. He ran back to the compartment, nearly slipping on a vein of slime from the cistern as he did so, and burst through the door to find the poor man lying on his bed, clutching his heart with one hand, the synthitar with the other, all its fantastical projections dispersed.

"The synthitar is yours," Vanya told the boy, and died.

Sobbing, the boy brought his hand to Vanya's sweaty forehead and gazed at the old corpse for a long time. Then, as he turned to go inform his father or Moisey, he noticed the many parts for burial-pods scattered about the compartment. Realizing there was now no one else to make Vanya's pod, the boy set himself to the task.


Of all Fulghum's inheritances as the son of the wealthy Research Director, there were no gifts that outdid old Vanya's synthitar. When Fulghum plays the synthitar most sweetly, or to console others or himself, its projector often conjures images of its previous master as he was at his happiest moments: the times he was playing his synthitar. And so Fulghum and Vanya play together.

And whenever Fulghum tries to repeat what Uncle Vanya played in his final moments--that convoluted but heart-wrenching lament--the audience is always brought to tears; for at these moments the synthitar conjures different images for everyone, and they are all reminded of what they love and why they live. At the end of such performances, someone usually asks, "Where did you get such a fine instrument, Fulghum? It is a synthitar, right?" And as Fulghum packs away the instrument, he shrugs and says, "I have owned it all my life. For it was one of my fathers who passed it to me."