The anatomy of a hurdy-gurdy


The anatomy of a hurdy-gurdy
by Philip Charter

The curve of the body is yours. Wooden lines live and breathe. I cradle you, as if you were still a part of me, but you are not. My instrument is angular yet perfectly rounded, with interruptions. Its rough edges are worn smooth through years of repetitions. Diners at their long tables watch the instrument, not me. My best clothes would not count among their worst. I blend into the stone walls. That one night, you watched me and we listened to each other’s breath and heartbeat as if it were an orchestra.

I turn the handle and begin, yet the banquet conversation does not still. Most continue with their own drone and melody. The wheel runs crooked. Its motion will never be as pure. My arm turns the handle in perfect muscle memory and the cracked wheel goes around and around. The beating I received was his muscle memory. I didn’t know you had a husband or that it would be impossible to play for three months with broken hands. Eventually, the wheel turned again and the people danced, but it was never the same.

Within the bridge, there lies a peculiar tension. The luthier says that one day it will break, like the back of a labourer carrying some great load. For now, I play and the strings sing sweet lies, just as you did to me.

The keys dance up and down in tune. Ivory teeth constructing their story of good and evil. The Lord looks up when my fingers stray onto a wrong note. One lapse is all it takes to be cast out. I play for an hour but I have slipped. I have fallen, just as the very instrument did, from the church to the dining hall. Soon, the banquet will end. All that will be left are bowls filled with ragged bones and apple cores.

The protective case shuts over another performance and the players take to the stage. Eyes closing, yet sleep will not come. The guests will dance in merriment. Not I. The cracks in the polished wood don’t show. I am practised at putting my instrument back together, piece by piece, straightening the pegs and changing rusty strings as if nothing happened. But, its broken wheel will never run true.

Philip Charter is a British writer who lives abroad. His work has been featured in Fictive Dream, Reflex Fiction, and The National Flash Fiction Day anthology among other publications. In 2018, his piece ‘Raft’ won the 2018 WOW fest Flash Fiction Prize and he released his debut short fiction collection, Foreign Voices. Find out more at

Line drawing of a hurdy-gurdy taken from Syntagma musicum (1614-1619), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.