Violin, p.15

Violin, page 15

 

Violin
 



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  "I see ... and you had twenty."

  "In my father's house, I told you. Profit by your reading. You know what Vienna was in those days. You know of princes who had private orchestras. Don't be stupid."

  "And you died for just this one?"

  "I would have died for any of them," he said. He let his eyes move over the instrument. "I almost did die for all of them. I ... But this one, this was mine, or so we always said, though of course I was only his son, and there were many and I used to play all of them." He seemed to be musing.

  "You did truly die for this violin?"

  "Yes! And for the passion to play it. If I'd been born a talentless idiot like you, an ordinary person like you, I would have gone mad. It's a wonder you don't!"

  Instantly he seemed sorry. He looked at me almost apologetically.

  "But few have ever listened like you, I'll give you that."

  "Thank you," I said.

  "Few have ever understood the sheer language of music as you do."

  "Thank you," I whispered.

  "Few have ever ... longed for such a broad range." He seemed puzzled. He looked almost helplessly at the violin before him.

  I said nothing.

  He became flustered. He stared at me.

  "And the bow," I said, suddenly frightened that he would go, go again, disappear out of vengeance. "Did the great Stradivari make the bow too?"

  "Perhaps, it's doubtful. He didn't much bother with bows. But you know that. This one could be his, it could, and of course you know the wood." His smile came again, intimate and a little wondering.

  "I do? I think I don't," I said. "What wood is it?" I touched the bow, the long broad bow. "It's wide, very wide, wider than our modern bows, or those used today."

  "To make a finer sound," he said, looking at it, "Oh, you do notice things."

  "That is obvious. Anyone would have noticed that. I'm sure the audience in the Chapel noticed that it was a wide bow."

  "Don't be so certain of what they noticed. Do you know why it is so wide?"

  "So that horsehair and wood don't touch so easily, so that you can play more stridently."

  "Stridently," he repeated, with a smile. "Strident. Ah, I never thought of it in that way."

  "You attack often enough, you come crashing down. A slightly concave bow is necessary for that, isn't it? What is the wood of the bow, it's some special wood. I can't remember. I used to know these things. Tell me."

  "I would like to," he said. "The maker I don't know, but the wood I do know and did when I was alive, and the wood is pernambuco." He studied me as if expecting something. "Does that ring no chords in your memory, pernambuco? Does it have no resonance for you?"

  "Yes, but what is pernambuco? I don't--"

  "Brazilwood," he said. "And it was only from Brazil that it came at the time this bow was made. Brazil."

  I studied him. "Ah, yes," I said.

  Suddenly, the wide sea appeared, the brilliant sparkling sea, and the moonlight flooding it, and then a great course of waves. The image was so strong it blotted him out and caught me, but then I felt him lay his hand on my hand.

  I saw him. I saw the violin.

  "You don't remember? Think."

  "Of what?" I asked. "I see a beach, I see an ocean, I see waves."

  "You see the city where your friend Susan told you your child was reborn," he said sharply.

  "Brazil--." I looked at him. "In Rio, in Brazil, oh, yes, that's what Susan wrote in the letter, Lily was ..."

  "A musician in Brazil, just what you always sought to be, a musician, remember? Lily was reincarnated a musician in Brazil."

  "I told you, I threw the letter away. I've never seen Brazil, why do you want me to see it?"

  "I don't!" he said.

  "But you do."

  "No."

  "Then why do I see it? Why do you wake me when I see the water and the beach? Why did I dream of it? Why did I see it just now? I didn't recall that part of Susan's letter. I didn't know the meaning of the word 'pernambuco.' I've never been--"

  "You're lying again, but you're innocent," he said. "You really don't know it. Your memory has a few merciful rips in it, or places where the weave is too worn. St. Sebastian, he is the patron saint of Brazil."

  He looked up at Karl's Italian masterpiece of St. Sebastian above the fireplace. "Remember that Karl wanted to go, to complete his work on St. Sebastian, to gather the Portuguese renderings of St. Sebastian that he knew were there, and you said you'd rather not."

  I was hurt and unable to answer. I had said this to Karl, I'd disappointed him. And he had never been well enough again to make the trip.

  "Ah, she faults herself, so naturally," he said. "You didn't want to go because it was the place that Susan had mentioned in her letter."

  "I don't remember."

  "Oh, yes, you do, because I wouldn't know it if you didn't."

  "I can't make any sea pounding on a beach in Brazil. You're going to have to find something worse, something more specific. Or disentangle it from yourself, because you don't want me to see it, which can only mean--"

  "Stop your stupid analysis."

  I sat back.

  Pain had for the moment won out. I couldn't speak. Karl had wanted to go to Rio, and there had been many a time when I was very young that I had wanted to go--south to Brazil and Bolivia and Chile and Peru--all those otherworldly places, and Susan had said it in the letter, that Lily had been reborn in Rio, and there was something else, some fragment, some detail ...

  "The girls," he said.

  I remembered.

  In our building in Berkeley, in the apartment above Susan, the beautiful Brazilian woman and her two daughters and how they said when they left, "Lily, we'll never forget you." University people from Brazil. There had been several families. I went to the bank and got silver dollars for them and gave them each five, those beautiful girls with the deep, throaty voices, and soft ... oh, yes, those were the accents of the speech in the dream! I looked at him.

  The language of the marble temple was Portuguese.

  He stood up in rage. He drew back the violin.

  "Give in to it, suffer it, why don't you? You gave them the silver dollars, and they kissed Lily and they knew she was dying but you thought Lily didn't. It was only after Lily died that her friend, her motherly friend Susan, told you that Lily had known all along she was going to die."

  "I won't, I swear I won't." I stood up. "I'll exorcise you like some cheap demon before I'll let you do this to me."

  "You do it to yourself."

  "You go too far, much too far, and for your own purposes. I remember my daughter. That's enough. I ..."

  "What? Lie with her in an imaginary grave? What do you think my grave is like?"

  "You have one?"

  "I don't know," he said. "I never looked. But then they would never have put me in consecrated ground, or given me a stone."

  "You look as sad and broken as I feel."

  "Never," he said.

  "Oh, we are some pair."

  He drew back, as if he were afraid of me, clutching the violin to his chest.

  I heard the dull stroke of a clock--one of several, the loudest perhaps coming from the dining room. Hours had passed, hours as we sat here sparring.

  I looked at him and a terrible malice grew in me, a vengeance that he even knew my secrets, let alone drew them out and played with them. I reached for the violin.

  He drew back. "Don't."

  "Why not? Will you fade if it leaves your hands?"

  "It's mine!" he said. "I took it with me into death and with me it remains. I don't ask why anymore. I don't ask anything anymore."

  "I see, and if it is broken, shattered, smashed in any sense?"

  "It can't be."

  "Looks to me like it could."

  "You're stupid and mad."

  "I'm tired," I said. "You've stopped crying and now it's my turn."

  I walked away from him. I opened the back doors of the
room to the dining room. I could see straight through it and out the back windows of the house, and there the tall cherry laurels were lighted against the fence of the Chapel priest house, bright leaves in a flash of electric lights, moving as if there were a wind, and I hadn't--in this big house, creaky as it might be--hadn't even noticed the wind. Now I heard it tapping the panes, and creeping beneath the floors.

  "Oh God," I said. I had my back to him and I listened as he walked towards me, cautiously, as if he just wanted to be close.

  "Yes, cry," he said. "Why is that wrong?"

  I looked at him. He seemed for the moment very human, almost warm.

  "I prefer other music!" I said. "You know I do. And you have made this a hell for both of us, this little affair."

  "Do you think some better bond is possible?" He sounded sincere. He looked sincere. "That I at this advanced stage, so alienated from life, could be won over to something like love, perhaps? No, there isn't heat enough in love for me. Not since that night, not since I left the flesh and took this instrument with me."

  "Go on, you want to cry too. Do it."

  "No," he said, backing up.

  I looked back out at the green leaves. Suddenly the lights went off.

  That meant something. It meant an hour of the clock and such an hour had just struck, and at that time, the lights went off automatically in one place, and on automatically somewhere else.

  I heard no sound in the house. Althea and Lacomb slept. No, Althea had gone out tonight and wouldn't be back till morning, and Lacomb, he'd gone down to the basement room to sleep so that he could smoke where he knew the smell of it wouldn't sicken me. The house was empty.

  "No, we two are here," he whispered in my ear.

  "Stefan?" I said. I pronounced it as Miss Hardy had, with the weight on the first syllable.

  His face smoothed and brightened. "You live a brief life," he said. "Why don't you pity me that this is my misery forever?"

  "Well, then, play for me. Play for me, and let me dream and remember without begrudging you. Or do I have to hate it? Will pure misery given up to you be enough, for once?"

  He couldn't bear this. He looked like a lacerated child. I might as well have slapped him. And when he did look up, his eyes were glassy and pure and his mouth quivered.

  "Very young when you died," I said.

  "Not as young as your Lily," he said bitterly, spitefully, but he could hardly make the words audible. "What did the priests tell you? She had not even reached 'The Age of Reason'?"

  We looked at one another, I holding her in my arms and listening to precocious talk, the clever wit and irony born out of pain and tongue-loosening drugs like Dilantin. Lily, my shining one with a glass lifted among all the friends to toast, her head perfectly bald, her smile so lovely that even I was grateful, grateful to see this so vividly in retrospect. Oh, yes, please, the smile. I want to see it, and hear her laugh like something tumbling merrily downhill.

  Memory of talking to Lev. "My son Christopher laughs the same way, that belly laugh, that effortless laugh!" Lev had told me on some long-distance call two children ago, when Chelsea and he were both on the wire and we all cried for the happiness of it.

  I walked slowly through the dining room. The lights of the house had all been properly turned out for the night. Only the sconce by my bedroom door remained lighted. I drifted past it. I went into my room.

  He followed every step I took, soundlessly but there, there as distinct as a great shadow following me, a great cloak of pure darkness.

  But then I looked at his vulnerable face, and his helplessness, and I thought to myself, And please, God, don't let him know, but he is like all the rest, dying and needing me. It's no mere insult to sting him. It's true.

  Perplexed, he watched me.

  I had an urge to take off these clothes, the velvet tunic I wore, the silk skirt, I wanted to remove all that bound me. I wanted a loose gown, and to slide beneath the covers and dream, dream of the dream graves and the dream dead, and all that. I was warm and mussed but not weary, no, not for one second weary.

  I was poised for battle as if for once I might win! But winning, what would that be like, and would he suffer? Could I want this, even from someone so rank and unkind and literally out of this world?

  But I didn't brood on him, this young thing, except to know again with a thudding heart that he was truly there, that if I was mad, I was safely mad where no one could reach me but him. We stood together.

  I began to remember something, something so dreadful that not a month of my life passed that I didn't think of it, something that came like a big slice of glass into me, and yet I'd never described it to anyone, not a soul, ever, ever, in my life, not even Lev.

  I shivered. I sat on the bed, easing myself back, but it was so high my feet wouldn't touch the ground. I climbed off it and walked, and he stepped back to let me pass.

  I felt the wool of his coat. I even felt his hair. I reached back in the door of the alcove, right before the dining room and I grabbed his long hair.

  "Now, that's cornsilk, but it's black," I said.

  "Ah, stop it," he said. He freed himself. It felt slippery and it glittered, the hair, as it left my hand. But then my hand was already open.

  He made a dodge into the dining room and darted a long way from me. And then he lifted the bow. No need to tighten the horsehair of the pernambuco spectral bow, it seems, to play now.

  I closed my eyes on him and on the world but not on the past and not on this memory. This was for him, this one ... and so small and so hard to gather and face, like slicing one's hand with glass....

  But I was driven to it. What would be lost? Not even this trivial and ugly and unconfessed thing was going to push me to the end of all reason. If I could still make lucid dreams, and phantoms too, well, then let him come after me.

  10

  WE BEGAN together. I let myself drift; this particular torment is private, heated with shame, so debased that one can't even connect it with sadness.

  Sadness.

  It was the same house in which we stood now. He played a sonata for me in the lower pitch, drawing his bow with such skill on the deep notes that it seemed my eyes saw an earlier time as visibly as my mind.

  But I was on the other side of the long dining room.

  I smelled the summer before machines had come to cool houses such as this, when wood took on that special baked smell, and the stench of the kitchen's common foods, cabbage and ham, lingered for eternity. Was there a house then that I knew that didn't smell of boiled cabbage? But I was thinking of little houses then, the small gingerbread shotgun houses in the Irish-German waterfront whence my people came--well, some of them--and where often I went with my Mother or Father, hand held tight, gazing on narrow barren sidewalks, wishing for trees, wishing for the soft jumbled mansions of the Garden District.

  This after all was a big house; a cottage yes, of only four great rooms on its main floor, with children sleeping in small bedchambers beneath a dormered attic. But each of those four rooms was large, and on that night, the night I remembered, or could never privately forget, the unsharable night, the ugly night, the dining room that lay between me and the master bedroom seemed so vast that surely I was no more than eight years old, if that.

  Yes, eight, I remembered, because Katrinka had been born, and somewhere upstairs she slept, a baby who knew how to crawl, and I had become frightened in the night and wanted my mother's bed, which wasn't all that uncommon. I had just come down the stairway.

  My Father, long home from the war, had begun his nighttime jobs, as had his brothers, all of them working feverish hours to keep their families, and was gone where on this evening it didn't matter.

  Only that she had begun to drink, that's what mattered, and that my Grandmother was dead, and fear had come, the dull terrible misery of dread; I knew it, knew the gloom that threatened to consume all hope, as I had come creeping down the stairs and into this dining room, hoping for the light in her be
droom, because even if she was "sick," as we called it then, and had that sour taste (read liquor) on her breath, and slept so soundly that one could shake her head and nothing would happen, still, she'd be warm, the light would burn; she hated the dark, she was afraid of it.

  There was no electric light, none that I could see. Let your music speak of fear, overwhelming child's fear, fear that the entire fabric of things is rent and will never be whole. It was possible even then to wish I'd never been born; I just didn't have the words to explain it.

  But I knew I'd been launched on an awful existence of anguish and peril, of wandering beyond the range of comfort again and again, closing my eyes, wishing only for the morning sun, for the company of others, seeking solace in the sight of the headlamps of the passing cars, which each had such a distinct shape.

  Down the narrow curving stairs I had come and into this dining room.

  Look, that was the black oak buffet we had in those days, carved by machines, bulbous and grand. That was the one Father gave away when she died, saying he had to give her furniture to "her family" as if we, her daughters, were not her family. But this, this particular night, was long before her death. The buffet was an eternal landmark on the map of dread.

  Faye was yet to come, tiny, starved out of the black water of the rotten womb, beloved tiny Faye had not yet come like something sent from Heaven to make warmth, to dance, to distract, to make us all laugh, Faye who walked in beauty like the day and would forever, no matter what pain was thrust upon her, Faye who could lie for hours watching the movements of the green trees in the wind, Faye, born in poison and offering everyone only boundless sweetness forever.

  No, this was just before Faye, and this was cheerless, and without safety; this was as dark as the world would ever get, perhaps, even more nearly hopeless than the realizations that come with age, because there was no wisdom to help me. I was afraid, afraid.

  Maybe Faye was in Mother's womb that night, already. Could have been. Mother bled all the time she carried Faye. If so, Faye was floating in the drunken contaminated sightless world, penetrated perhaps with misery? Does a drunken heart beat as strong as any other heart? Is a drunken mother's body just as warm to a tiny speck of a being like that, floating, waiting, groping towards a consciousness of dark and chilled rooms where fear stands on the threshold? Panic and misery hand in hand in one timid guilty child peering across a dirty room.

 

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