They say you can see them on nights like tonight, when the full moon casts its haunting glow onto the quiet, deserted streets. Empty tree branches—frail fingertips grasping for some desire just out of reach—sway in the crisp, blue breeze.
And if you were so bold to want to steal a glance, you’d find yourself standing in the empty yard of the Marion County courthouse, willing the brittle blades of grass underfoot not to betray your presence.
Because it is through the rippled antique glass that the swaying shadow of the trees is not alone in movement.
No, these are the nights when the dark, abandoned halls of the old limestone building welcome two old friends. His arm cradles her waist, her hand finds solace in his.
Together they glide across the tiled floors, moving as one to an invisible tempo of a band that seems to be playing on only for them. For a moment you hear the strains of an old-time waltz, the warm notes of a murmuring cornet.
But this has not always been their home.
You see, the courthouse we know today is not the first to stand here. Built on this same ground in 1867, the first level of the old stone structure was used as a school, the second for court proceedings.
But the upper level was often rented out, repurposed for meetings, social gatherings and dances. A warm April evening in 1898 found itself host to such a happy event.
The country’s involvement in Cuba’s escalating violence seemed too distant for care as the orange lights from the second floor illuminated the downtown buildings and the band’s cheery notes skittered around each corner.
Inside, weaving through smiles and laughter, couples young and old in their Sunday best danced to the happy tunes.
Eighteen-year-old Matt Casey and his sweetheart Marie Palmer, her strawberry blond hair curled into shiny ribbons, had just arrived. Murmurs around town suggested wedding bells were soon in their future.
The three-four rhythm of “And the Band Played On” began to palpitate through the second-floor hall, and Casey spun his best girl—whirling her pink gown through the air—onto the polished dark wood floor.
As they danced, Marie and Casey laughed at the irony of the song’s unsung lyrics.
Casey would waltz with the strawberry blond, and the band played on.
It was a funny sort of love song, Marie thought. But it could go on forever as far as she was concerned.
He’d ne’er leave the girl with strawberry curl, and the band played on.
But Casey knew he had to.
As the musicians started a melancholy melody, Casey pulled Marie aside with news he couldn’t keep from her any longer. The conflict against Spain was weighing on his sense of duty. He couldn’t remain a bystander to the war any longer. He had joined up with the National Guard. He was leaving in a few days.
Though Marie knew she should be proud, hot tears of anger flooded over her cheeks. They were supposed to get married, she told him. If he could just abandon her like this, then he needn’t bother to come back at all.
With that she left the warmth and the glow and the music and the laughter. And Casey left to join his unit.
He wrote a single postcard home to Marie. They would dance again, he promised. His love for her had not met its end. The band would play on.
Assigned to the 22nd Kansas Volunteer Infantry, Casey found himself not in battle, but entrenched in the unbearable humidity of Camp Alger, a collection of leaky tents without clean water near Falls Church, Va. An outbreak of typhoid fever overtook Casey, and he died a few days later.
The news of Casey’s death found its way home faster than the postcard addressed to Marie. Again she felt tears streaking her face, but these were very different.
She knew he was gone, and his written words carried an unmeetable hope.
Years passed by Marie like the fleeting view from a speeding locomotive. The hint of red in her hair turned to the gray that comes with age. And yet her heart never left the warmth of the second floor of that old courthouse.
Until her dying day, Marie longed for a happily-ever-after; to share that one last dance again, embracing Casey to that old love song with those funny, forgotten words.
Did that happy ending ever come? Perhaps.
If your nerve leads you to the courthouse on a clear, chilled night like tonight, you may find yourself witness to a shimmer of strawberry blond, and a waltz illuminated only by the silver glow of the moon.
Because it seems that for these young sweethearts, the band will always play on.
To ask why, contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.