The night was crisp, and Doctor Jazz was making his rounds again.
His first visit was to Mrs Madrigal at the far end of the valley. Her triplets were feverish, so he calmed and soothed them with the medicines in his little black bag until they fell into a rhythmic sleep. He left their worried mother with a chill pill and instructions to bring them to the surgery in the morning.
Back on the path, feet pumping, heart thumping, cane tapping, he scaled the ascent to Beggar's Farm, where Mr Williams was feeling crotchety. The problem was minor so his work was minimal and the visit brief.
He paused at the farm gates to enjoy the cooler breeze of the hilltop and watch the stars in their slow spiral dance. He patted the pockets of his long frock coat to locate his pipe, and smoked a bowl as he traced the dark line of the hills across the way and the yellow lights of the houses in the village below. A sheep bleated in a nearby field and he was content. Life in the valley was harmonious, a pastoral idyll.
He strolled slowly back home, swinging his cane happily in one hand and his black bag in the other as gravity helped him descend. Going down was always easier.
As he neared the village he felt a dissonance. He stopped, alert now, eyes sharp and ears keen. Sounds of laughter and a singalong ballad from the pub, the breeze rustling through trees and hedges... There. Someone standing in the shadows of the old chestnut.
"Good evening," the doctor called.
The figure stepped forward, gaunt and dark, carrying a black staff. A stranger.
"Good evening, doctor," he replied in a deep baritone.
"You have me at an advantage, sir. Do I know you?"
"No," the stranger said. "I am a traveller. A pilgrim, if you will."
"A traveller, eh? We haven't seen many travellers in these parts for a long time. How do you know I'm a doctor?"
"Frock coat, black bag, silver-headed walking cane and an air of purpose on a nocturne walk. I was right then?"
"Indeed," Jazz replied, then paused. What does one say to a stranger? He had forgotten. The silence stretched out as the stranger waited. One beat. Two. Jazz shook himself. "Where are you going?"
"That is a direction, not a destination."
"I do not know the destination. None of us do."
"It seems an unsettling way to travel."
"There is no choice."
"You could settle down somewhere. You could settle here; there's always work for a good pair of hands, and we are hospitable, I assure you."
The stranger smiled. "I should like that very much, and I thank you for the offer. It seems a beautiful place to rest. But I cannot. We must be on our way."
"We? What do you mean, sir?"
"The path is calling."
"I hear nothing but the rhythm of the valley."
The stranger looked sadly at the doctor, raised his staff and slammed its butt onto the ground. The thump echoed.
"No, no, no!" the doctor cried. "You missed the beat. Listen, it goes like this." He tapped his cane on the ground to demonstrate the timing, then added the backbeat.
The stranger shook his head and slammed his staff down again. The ground shook. The doctor staggered, but managed to keep his cane tapping in time.
"You are very strong-willed," the pilgrim said.
"Who the devil are you?" the doctor asked, then felt a moment's panic as he took in the stranger's dark clothes and lean face. The devil? Surely not. He kept his cane tapping.
"I am Requiem."
"No! No! We will have no dirges here. No funeral marches, pibrochs or wake-tunes." The doctor redoubled his efforts, his cane blurring as he added triplets, graces and fills to the beat and backbeat. He tapped the tune of the village, the valley and the heathery hills. He tapped the story of its people, young and old, of their labours and their hopes. He tapped the story of himself, for he realised only the affirmation of life could save him. Could save them all.
"I'm sorry," the stranger whispered. "I'm so sorry." He brought his staff down a third time, and the sound broke like thunder over the hills, deep, rolling and unstoppable. Jazz's cane clattered to the ground and tapped no more.
The stranger sank to his knees. "It is done," he said, and slapped his palm three times on the ground to mark the end. Then he bowed his head and wept.
Hours later, when the sun touched his neck, he rose to his feet and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He took up his black staff and walked down the grassy hollow way between the humps and bumps marking the site of forgotten houses, down to the crumbled remains of a ruined church, little more than foundations now. Nothing left but sheep to crop the turf, where generations had sought salvation.
He reached inside his coat for a sprig of mountain heather, tied into a posy with a black ribbon, and knelt to lay it on a fallen headstone. He traced the lines of the ancient inscription, clearing away soil and moss with a fingernail until he could make out the name.
"Don't you see, doctor?" the pilgrim wept. "All tunes must end, or they just repeat until they fade."