Violin, p.18

Violin, page 18



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  "Yes, you will see that, you will see ... what distinguishes pain ... what, it's ... they ..."

  "And who were they? Who were they that were so terrible they could propel you right out of life with a shape and taking this violin with you so that you come to me, in the guise of comforter, and cast me down, to see those weeping faces, my Mother, oh, you, I hate you--my worst memories."

  "You reveled in tormenting yourself, you made your own graveyard pictures and poems, you sang out for death with a greedy mouth. You think death is flowers? Give me my violin. Scream with your vocal cords, but give me my violin."

  Mother in a dream two years after her death, "You saw flowers, my girl."

  "You mean you're not dead?" I had cried out in the dream, but then I knew this woman was a fake, not her, I knew by the crooked smile, not my Mother, my Mother was really dead. This imposter was too cruel when she said, "The whole funeral was a sham," when she said, "You saw flowers."

  "Get away from me," I whispered.

  "It's mine."

  "I did not invite you!"

  "You did."

  "I do not deserve you."

  "You do."

  "I made up prayers and fantasies, as you said. I laid the tributes on the grave, and they had petals, these tributes. I dug graves that were cut to my size. You took me back, you took me to the raw and the unframed, and you made my head sick with it. You kicked the breath out of me! And now I can play, I can play this violin!"

  I turned away from him and I played, the bow rising and falling with ever greater grace, song. My hands knew! Yes, they did.

  "Only because it's mine, because it's not real, you shrew, give it up!"

  I stepped back, playing the melody down deep and harsh, ignoring the repeated thrust of his desperate hands. Then I broke off, shivering.

  The magical link was made between my mind and my hands, between intent and fingers, between will and skill; God be praised, it had happened.

  "It's coming from my violin because it's mine!" he said.

  "No. The fact that you can't snatch it back is clear enough. You try. You can't. You can pass through walls. You can play it. You brought it with you into death, all right. But you can't get it away from me now. I'm stronger than you. I have it. It stays solid, look. Listen, it sings! What if it was destined somehow for me? Did you ever think of that, you evil predatory creature, did you ever love anyone before or after death yourself, enough to think that perhaps--"

  "Outrageous," he said. "You are nothing, you are random, you are one in hundreds, you are the very epitome of the person who appreciates all and creates nothing, you are merely one--"

  "Oh, you clever thing. You make your face so full of pain, just like Lily, just like Mother."

  "You do this to me," he whispered. "It's not right, I would have moved on, I would have gone if you had asked me. You tricked me!"

  "But you didn't move on, you wanted me, you tormented me, you didn't go until it was too late and I needed you; how dare you tear at wounds that deep, and now I have this and I'm stronger than you! Something in me has claimed it and won't let it go. I can play it."

  "No, it's part of me, as much as my face or my coat or my hands, or my hair. We're ghosts, that thing and I, you can't begin to imagine what they did, you have no authority, you cannot come between me and that instrument, you don't begin to understand this perdition, and they ..."

  He bit his lip; his face gave the illusion of a man who might faint, so white it went, all the blood that wasn't blood rushing from it. He opened his mouth.

  I couldn't bear to see him hurt. I couldn't. It seemed the final error, the ultimate wrong, the last defeat, to see him hurt, Stefan, whom I scarcely knew and had robbed. But I would not give the violin back to him.

  I let my eyes mist. I felt nothing, the great cool blankness of nothing. Nothing. I heard music in my mind, a replay of the music I'd made. I bowed my head and shut my eyes. Play again--.

  "All right, then," he said. I waked from this blankness, and looked at him, and my hands tightened on the violin.

  "You've made your choice," he said, eyebrows lifted, face full of wonder.

  "What choice?"


  THE LIGHT dulled in the room; glossy leaves beyond the curtains lost their shape. The smells of the room and the world weren't the same.

  "What choice?"

  "To come with me. You're in my realm now, you're with me! I have strengths and weaknesses, no power to strike you dead, but I can bind you with spells and plunge you into the true past as surely as an angel could do it, as surely as your own conscience can. You drive me to this, you force me."

  A stinging wind swept my hair back. The bed was gone. So were the walls. It was night and the trees loomed and then vanished. It was cold, bitter, biting cold, and there was a fire! Look, a great and lurid blaze against the clouds.

  "Oh, God, you wouldn't take me there!" I said. "Not to that! Oh, God, that burning house, that fear, that old child fear of fire! Ah. I will smash this violin to tinder--"

  People shouted, screamed. Bells rang. The whole night was alive with horses and carriages and people running to and fro and the fire, the fire was huge.

  The fire was in a great long rectangular house five stories high, with all windows of the upper floor belching flames.

  This was the crowd of a time past, women with their hair pinned up and in great flowing skirts that flared from beneath their breasts, and men in frock coats, and all in terror.

  "Good God!" I cried. I was cold, and the wind lashed my face. The cinders flew over me, the sparks striking my dress. People ran with buckets of water. People screamed. I saw tiny figures in the window of the huge house; they threw things out to the dark crowds leaping below. A huge painting tumbled down like a dark postage stamp against the fire, as men ran to catch it.

  The whole great square was filled with those who watched and cried and moaned and sought to help. Chairs were tossed from the high stories. A great tapestry was heavily flung out of one window in awkward heaps.

  "Where are we? Tell me."

  I looked at the clothes of those who ran past us. The soft flowing gowns of the last century before corsets had come, and the men, the men in big-pocketed coats, and look! Even the shirt of the filthy man who lay on the stretcher, burnt and covered with blood, it had great soft wrinkled ballooned sleeves.

  Soldiers wore their hats big-brimmed, turned-up, and sideways. Big lumbering and creaky carriages pulled as close as they could to the very fire itself, and the doors flopped open and men jumped out to assist. It was an assault of common men and gentlemen.

  A man near me removed his heavy coat and put it over the shoulders of a sagging, weeping woman whose gown was like a long inverted lily of wilted silk, her bare neck looking so cold as the big coat came down to cover it.

  "Don't you want to go inside!" Stefan said. He glared at me. He trembled. He wasn't immune to what he'd called up! He trembled but he was in a fury. I held the violin still, I would never let it go. "Come on, don't you want to! Look, you see?"

  People jostled him, pushed us, didn't seem to notice us, yet bumped us as if we had weight and space in their world, though obviously we had none; it seemed the nature of the illusion: a seductive solidity, as vital as the roar of the fire itself. People ran to and from the fire and then a remarkable man, a small man, a man pockmarked and gray-haired yet full of authority and easy glowering anger approached, a sloppy yet powerful man approached, staring hard through small round black eyes at Stefan.

  "Dear God," I said, "I know who you are." He was in shadow for a second against the blaze, then shifted so that the light laid bare his full frown.

  "Stefan, why are we here?" demanded the man. "Why this again?"

  "She's taken my violin, Maestro!" Stefan said, struggling to modulate his fragile words. "She's taken it."

  The little man shook his head; the crowd swallowed him up as he stepped back, disapproving, silk tie filthy, my guardian angel, my Beethove

  "Maestro!" Stefan cried. "Maestro, don't leave me!"

  This is Vienna. This is another world, and the wind, this is not the sharp dimensions of the lucid dream, this is vast unto the clouds, and look, the water being pumped, the buckets, the huge wet pavement reflecting the flicker of the fire, they are throwing water, and out of the windows above comes a desperate and hurly-burly succession of mirrors, and even chandeliers, distantly clattering, handed down ladders by man to man to man.

  Fire bursts from a lower window. A ladder is toppled. Screams. A woman doubles over and roars.

  Hundreds of people rush forward only to be driven back when the same fire spurts from all the lower windows. The building is going to explode with fire. The high fifth-story roof is eaten up with fire! A gust of soot and sparks strikes my face.

  "Maestro," Stefan called in panic. But the figure was gone.

  He turned, enraged, grief-stricken, beckoning for me to come. "Come, you want to see it, don't you, the fire, you want to see, you should see the first time I almost died for what you stole from me, come...."

  We stood inside.

  The high-ceilinged hall was filled with smoke. The chain of arches was ghostly above us, on account of that, but otherwise real, real as the sooted air that choked us.

  The painted pagan heaven above, broken by arch after arch, was full of deities, struggling to be seen again, to flash color and muscle and wing. The staircase was immense, marble, white, with bulbous balusters, Vienna, the Baroque, the Rococo, nothing as delicate as the realm of Paris, nothing as severe as the realm of England, no, it was Vienna--almost Russian in its excess. Look, the statue that has been knocked to the floor, the twisted marble garments, the painted wood. Vienna on the very frontier of Western Europe, and this as grand a palace as any ever built in it.

  "Yes, you have it right. You know," he said. His mouth quivered. "My home, my house! My father's house." His whisper was lost suddenly in the crackling, the stampede of feet.

  All this around us would blacken too, these high parterres of blood red velvet, this fringe of twisted gold, and everywhere I looked I saw Boiserie--wood, wood painted white and gold and carved in the heavy Viennese style, wood that would burn with the smell of trees, as if no one had strewn all these preciously detailed walls, with murals of domestic bliss or wartime victory, in rectangular frames on perishable material.

  The heat blasted the throng living in the painted walls, the fluted columns, the Roman arches. Look, even the arches are wood, wood painted to look like marble. Of course. This is not Rome. This is Vienna.

  Glass shattered. Glass flew through the air, swirling and descending and mingling with the sparks around us.

  Men thundered down the steps, legs bowed, elbows out, hefting a huge cabinet of ivory and silver and gold, nearly dropping it, then lifting it with shouts and curses again.

  We came into the great room. Oh, Lord, it is too late for this magnificence. It's too far gone, the flame is too passionately hungry.

  "Stefan, come on, now!" Whose voice was that?

  Coughing, everywhere, men and women were coughing the way she had coughed, my Mother, only the smoke was here, the true dense terrifying smoke of a conflagration. It was moving down, down from its natural hovering place beneath the ceilings.

  I saw Stefan--not the one by my side, not the one with his hard, cruel hand on my shoulder, not my ghost who held tight to me, as close as a lover. I saw a living Stefan, memory expressed in flesh and blood, in fancy high collar and vest and ruffled white shirt, all this smeared with soot, as across the giant room he smashed the glass of the huge etageres and grabbed out the violins and passed them to the man who then passed them to another and then down out of the windows.

  Even the air was the enemy here, gusting, ominous. "Hurry."

  Others stooped to gather what they could. Stefan thrust a fiddle before a fancy gilded chair. He shouted and cursed. Others backed out of the windows, carrying what they could, even sheets and sheets of music. Sheets broke loose and tore up in the gust--all that music.

  On the high-coved ceiling above the arches, the painted gods and goddesses blackened and wrinkled. A painted forest was peeling from the walls. Sparks rose in a great artful and beautiful spume against the crusted white wooden medallions.

  A great gash was blown through the ceiling plaster as if by a gun, and the naked fire let through its hideous light.

  I clutched at his arm, pressed against him, pressed us both back against the wall, staring at this searching tongue of flame.

  Everywhere, paintings, huge, framed, fitted into the wall, white-wigged men and women staring helplessly and coldly at us, and at time; look at them, that one begins to curl loose from its frame, there comes a loud snapping sound, and look, even the chairs themselves so artfully fashioned with their curved and ever ready legs, it's all ruined, and the smoke belching from this hole above, belching and curling and seeking to rise again, spreading out beneath the ceiling to blot out the Rococo Elysian Fields forever.

  Men ran to gather the cellos and violins that lay strewn on the rose-patterned carpet, instruments all tossed about as if dropped by those who had only lately fled. A table askew. A ballroom, yes, the floor, and displays of food, still shining as if someone might come and take from them. The smoke descended like a veil around a groaning banquet table. Silver and silver and fruit.

  The candles of the rocking chandelier were fountains of hot pouring wax, flowing down onto the carpets, the chairs, the instruments, even onto the face of a boy who cried out and looked up and then fled with a golden horn in his hand.

  Outside the crowd roared as if for a parade.

  "For God's sake, man," someone cried. "The walls are bursting into flame, the very walls!"

  A hooded figure, dripping wet, rushed past us, the wetness touching the back of my right hand, flash of shining boots, into the room, heaving the big wet sheet at Stefan to cover and protect him, and then snatching up one lute from the floor, he ran for the window and its ladder.

  "Stefan, come now!" he called out.

  The lute was gone, passed down. The man turned, eyes watering, face red, reaching back, his arms out for the cello Stefan lifted up and pushed at him.

  A great crash echoed through the building.

  The light was unbearably bright, as if it were the Last Day. Fire raged beyond a distant left-side door. The farthest window gave up its draperies in a whoosh of flame and smoke, rods falling crooked to the floor like lances.

  Look at these fine instruments, these musical miracles so brilliantly crafted that no one ever after, with all the technology of an electronic world, would ever match their perfection. Someone had stepped on that violin. Someone had crushed that viola, ah, sacred thing, broken.

  And all this here to burn!

  The chandelier swayed dangerously in the noxious mist as above it the entire ceiling visibly trembled.

  "Come now!" said the other. Another man grabbed up a small violin, a child's instrument perhaps, and escaped from another sill, and another one with a high folded collar and bushy hair fell down on his knees on the herringbone wood floor, one hand on the carpet. He coughed, he choked.

  The young Stefan, hair mussed, princely frock coat covered all over with tiny sparks, dying sparks of real flame, threw the bright wet cloth over the coughing man. "Get up, get up! Joseph, come, you're going to die in here!"

  A roar filled my ears. "It's too late!" I screamed. "Help him! Don't leave him!"

  Stefan my ghost stood beside me, laughing, his hand on my shoulder. The smoke made a veil between us, a cloud in which we stood, ethereal and safe and monstrously set apart, his beautiful face not a day older than the other image, sneering down at me, but a poor mask for its own suffering, an innocent mask in a way for all its intolerable grief.

  Then he turned and pointed to this distant and active image of himself, wet, bawling, being dragged from the room by two who had come in from the window, the lost one still groping in the dark, s
cratching at the carpet, I know, I know, you can't breathe. He was going to die. The one you called Joseph. He's dead, too late for him. Dear God, look. A rafter had fallen between us.

  The glass flew in splinters from the doors of the etageres. I saw everywhere the fiddles and gleaming bright trumpets left behind. A great French horn. A tumbled tray of sweets. Goblets sparkling, no, flaming in the light.

  The young Stefan, irreparably tangled in the moment, fought his rescuers, reaching out, demanding to be allowed to save one more, one more from the shelf of the etagere, let me go!

  He reached for one more, for this, this Strad, the long Strad; glittering glass swept off the shelf, as he pulled it with his free right hand, as he was dragged past it. He had it, and he had the bow.

  I could hear my ghost beside me draw in his breath; was he turning away from this his own magic? I couldn't turn away.

  A sudden crackling was consuming the ceiling above. Someone screamed in the great hallway behind us. The bow, Stefan had to have that too, and yes, the violin, and then a huge, muscular man, in fury and fright, took Stefan in his grip, and flung him over the windowsill.

  The fire rose up, just like it had from that awful Avenue house when I was a child, that dark place of simpler arches and more pedestrian shadows, faint common American echo of this grandeur.

  The fire fed and gulped and rose to make a sheet of itself. The night was red and brilliant, and nobody was safe, nothing was safe; the man in the smoke coughed and died, and the fire came closer and closer. The fancy gilded sofas near to us burst into flame, the very tapestry igniting as if from within. All draperies were torches, all windows featureless portals to a black and empty sky.

  I must have been screaming.

  I stopped, still clutching the ghost violin, the image of which he'd just saved.

  We were no longer in the house. Thank God for this.

  We stood in the crowded square. How the horror illuminated the night.

  Ladies in their long gowns scurried, wept, embraced each other, pointed.

  We stood before the long blazing facade of the house, invisible to the weeping frantic men who still ran to drag objects to safety. The wall would come down on all those velvet chairs. It would come down on the couches thrown out, helter skelter, and the paintings, look at them, frames broken, smashed, great portraits.


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