Violin, p.24

Violin, page 24



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  "You look on it," I cried. "You learn from it!"

  I saw it only for an instant. The standing figure. The hardened face, the contempt for the wandering formless dead, the cold eyes cast down on the grave.


  Another cemetery had risen around us; it was new, full of more grand monuments, more for show, and surely here somewhere stood the monument--ah, yes, to Schubert and Beethoven, their graven statues mounted like friends though in life they had scarce known each other--and before this monumental heap, the young and visible Stefan played a fierce Beethoven sonata, weaving his own work in and out, and a crowd of young women looked on, spellbound, one weeping.

  Weeping. I could hear her weeping. I could hear her weeping, and it became mingled with the crying of the violin, the ghost's face mournful finally as her own, and as she clutched her waist in pain, he bled the long notes out, and made the others swoon as they gazed at him.

  It might as well have been the worshipers of Paganini in the Lido, here, this magic violinist, nameless no doubt and garbed now completely for the late part of the century, playing for the living and the dead, eyes rising to fix on the one woman who cried.

  "You needed their grief, you fed on it!" I said. "You found your strength in it. You stopped your mad zinging crazy dead song and you played a selfless tune and they could see you then."

  You're rash and wrong. Selfless indeed. When was I ever selfless? And you, are you selfless now that you have my violin? Is it selflessness you feel as you watch this spectacle? I didn't feed upon her pain, but her pain opened her eyes and her eyes saw me, and those of others opened as well, and the song came out of me, from my talent, my talent born to me in my natural life and nurtured there and tutored there. You have no such gift. You have my violin! You are a thief as surely as my father was, a thief as the fire was that would have burnt it up!

  "And throughout this harangue you hold on to me. I feel your lips. I feel your kisses. I feel your fingers against my shoulders. Why? Why tenderness, as you spit hate in my ear? Why this mixture of love and rage? What can I give you that is good, Stefan? I tell you again, attend your own story. I won't give you back an instrument to drive people mad. Show me what you will. I won't do it."

  He whispered in my ear.

  Does it make you think of your dead husband? When the drugs made him impotent and he was so humiliated? Remember his face, his haggard face and the cold glaze of his eyes. He hated you. You knew the disease was finally on the march.

  I don't hold you because I love you. And neither did he. I hold you because you are alive. Your husband thought you a fool with a pretty house he filled with trinkets, Dresden plates, and high-top desks inlaid with fancy figures and crusted with ormolu; he held the crystal from France before your eye, and cleaned the chandeliers; he heaped your bed with pillows trimmed in brocade.

  And you, you, swallowed up with that, and your sense of heroism, that you would marry this sickling man, this fragile man, you let your beloved little sister Faye wander off. You didn't take her to your heart, you didn't stop her. You didn't see her take your Father's diaries and turn and turn and turn the pages! You didn't see her stare the length of the attic to the door of the room where you and your new husband, Karl, lay in bed. You did not see her frailty, displaced in her own Father's house by this new drama, Karl, the rich man, which you fed on as surely as I have ever fed on your misery. You did not see her slip to an orphan beaten down by her Father's written words of judgment, disappointment, condemnation. You didn't see her pain!

  "You see mine?" I tried to throw him off. "You see my pain? You claim yours is greater than mine, because you with your own hand struck down your Father? I have no talent for such crimes any more than for the violin. But this we share, this talent for suffering, yes, and for mourning, yes, and the passion for the majesty, the utter mystery of music. You think you can wring from me compassion when you pitch me into forced memories of Faye that I can't endure? You sickened dead thing. Yes, I saw Faye's pain, yes, I did, I did, I did let her go, I did, I let Faye go, I let her go! I married Karl. And it hurt Faye. Faye needed me!"

  Crying, I tried to pull loose. I couldn't move. I could only keep the violin from him and turn my head away. I wanted to cry alone. I wanted to cry forever. I wanted nothing but crying, and only those sounds which were eternally and forever the echo of crying, as though crying were the only sound that carried truth or merit.

  He kissed me under the chin and down along the neck. His body told of tender need, of pliant patience and sweetness, his fingers caught my face worshipfully, and he bowed his head as if in shame. In a broken voice he said my name:


  "I see you leapt to strength from love," I said, "love of the Maestro. But when did you start to drive them mad, to make them feel suffering?" I asked. "Or did this turn of events come especially for me, Triana Becker, the unremarkable, talentless woman in the white cottage on the Avenue; surely I wasn't the first. Whom do you serve? Why do you wake me from dreams of the beautiful sea? You think you serve the man whose gravestone brought you such a harrowing pain that you gained material form?"

  He moaned as if to beg me to stop.

  I wouldn't break off.

  "You think you served the God to whom you prayed? When did you start to make the grief if the grief didn't come sharp enough to make you?"

  Another scene took shape. Trolleys clattered on their tracks. A woman in a long dress lay on a bed of sensuous curves--call it Art Moderne. The window was framed in that free-drawn leaded design that marked the time. A phonograph stood nearby, its bulbous needle stilled, its turntable dusty.

  It was Stefan who played for her.

  She listened with glistening tears, oh, yes, the requisite tears, the eternal tears, let tears be as frequent in this narrative finally as any common everyday word. Let the ink turn to tears. Let the paper be soft with them.

  She listened with glistening tears and watched as the young man in the short, trim modern coat, sporting his lank satin hair, as if he would not give it up, though surely by now he knew he could change his shape, played the celestial instrument for her.

  It was a lustrous song I couldn't name, perhaps his own, dipping into the dissonance that marks even the early music of our own century, a twist, a throb, a thundering protest of nature and of death. She cried. She lay her head against green velvet, a stylish creature, as if painted on stained glass in her frivolous gown, her pointed shoes, her soft ringlets of red hair.

  He stopped. He lowered his fine weapons to his side. He looked tenderly at her, and came to her, and sat down on the curved couch beside her. He kissed her, yes, visible and palpable to her as he was to me, and his hair fell down on her as it did on me even now in the airily compassless gloom where we watched.

  He spoke now to the woman on the couch in a fresher German more easy to my ear.

  "Years ago," he said, "the great Beethoven. He had a grieving friend, a friend named Antoine Brentano. He loved her tenderly, most tenderly, as he loved so many people. Shhh. Don't believe the lies they tell of him. He loved many. And when she was in pain, Madame Brentano, he would come into her Viennese house, saying nothing to anyone. He would play and play for her--on the pianoforte--hour by hour to relieve her pain. These songs would drift up through the floors to her and comfort her and blunt her suffering. And then he would as silently take his leave without a nod to anyone. She loved him for it."

  "As I love you," said this young woman.

  Was she dead now, perhaps even long dead, or merely ancient?

  "Did you drive her mad?"

  I don't know! Watch. You don't admit the depth of it!

  She reached up with naked arms and wrapped them around the ghost, around something solid and seemingly male and passionate for her, hot for her pampered flesh, for the tears which he licked with his spectral tongue in a gesture so monstrous suddenly that the whole picture went dark for me.

  Licking her eyes, her salty tears, licking her eye
s. Stop it!

  "Let me go!" I said. I thrust against him. I kicked with my heels against his feet. I threw back my head and heard the sound of my skull against his! "Let me go!" I said.

  Give me my violin and I'll let you go! Eyes. Are Lily's eyes still in a jar? You let them cut her up, remember, and why, to be sure that you by some negligence or stupidity had not yourself murdered her? Eyes. Remember? Eyes, your Father's eyes; they were open when he died and your Aunt Bridget said to you, Do you want to close them, Triana, and she told you what an honor it was to close his eyes, and showed you how to put your hand ...

  I struggled but couldn't get loose.

  There came music, replete with drums, something eerie and savage, yet behind it rose his violin.

  Did you even look into your mother's eyes that day you let her go to her death, she died in a seizure, foolish girl, she could have been saved, she was not worn out, she was only sick unto death of living and of you and all her dirty children and her childish frightened husband!


  I saw him suddenly, my captor. We were visible. There was light gathering around us. He stood apart from me. I held the violin and glared at him.

  "Be damned with all your visions," I said. "Yes, yes, I confess, I killed them all, I did, I am to blame; if Faye is dead and lying on a slab, I did it! Yes, I did it! What would you do with it if I gave back this violin? Drive someone else crazy? Eat her tears? I loathe you. My music was my joy. My music was transcendence! What is yours but harm and meanness?"

  "And why not," he said to me. He stopped close and clamped his hands on my neck, treacherously against my throat. I could scarcely bear to be touched there even by someone I loved, that tender place around the neck, but I wouldn't fall into his trick and try to throw him off.

  "Have you the strength to kill me?" I said. "Did you bring that power too, into this void, the power to kill as you killed your Father? Do it then. Maybe we are at the door of death, and you are the god who holds the scales to weigh my heart. Is this the form of reckoning? All made up of things I cherished in my life?"

  "No!" But he was shaken, crying again. "No. Look to me! Don't you see what I am? Don't you see what happened to me? Don't you understand! I am lost. I am alone. And anyone who walks in the void at the same pace as I do walks alone as I do! We who are visible and powerful haunts, and surely there must be more, we cannot commune with each other--Bring you Lily? I'd do it if I could! Your Mother? In the snap of a finger, if I knew how, yes, come, comfort her daughter who has mourned her Mother all her life, and so uselessly. And with you, with you, traveling back into this pain, outside my Father's burning house, I saw for the first time the shade of Beethoven! His ghost! He came on your account, Triana!"

  "Or to stop you, Stefan," I said, making my voice soft. "To school your magic. Yours in some naive and powerful sorcery. This violin is made of wood, and you are flesh and I am flesh, though one is living and the other made by unforgiving greed--."

  "No!" he whispered. "Not greed. Never."

  "Let me go. I don't care if this is madness, dream or witchcraft, I want to get away from you!"

  "You can't."

  I felt the change. We were dissolving. Only the violin had form in my arms. We vanished again. We had no selves. The scene descended; the eerie music beat on.

  A man was on his knees, hands over his ears, but Stefan the fiddler left him no peace, drowning out the half-naked coffee-skinned drummers who pounded the drums, their eyes fixed on the evil violinist, whom they followed yet feared as they beat the rhythm.

  Another moment shone bright, a woman banging his tenacious ghostly shape with her fist as on and on he played, a wailing dirge.

  There came a school yard with great leafy trees where the children danced about him in a ring, the fiddler, as if he were the Pied Piper, and a teacher cried out and tried to draw them away, but I couldn't hear her voice over his incessant cantabile.

  What did I see now? Figures embracing in the dark, whispers struck my face. I saw him smile and a proffered woman blot out the shimmer of his countenance.

  Love them, drive them crazy, it was all the same in the end, because they died! And I did not. I did not. And this violin is my immortal treasure and I will tear you out of life right into this Hell with me forever if you don't give it up.

  But we had come to a certain place. The blur was gone. A ceiling ran above our heads. This was a corridor.

  "Wait, look, these white walls," I said, thrilled with alarm, with such terrifying deja vu. "I know this."

  Filthy white tile, and there came the demonic taunting of the violin, not music now so much as a rasping, driving torture.

  "I saw this place in a dream," I said, "these white tile walls, look, these metal lockers. Look, the big steam engines. And the gate, look!"

  For one precious instant, even as we stood at the rusted gates, the great gorgeous beauty of the dream came back, the dream which had had not only this grim cellar passage and its gated tunnel, but the palace of beautiful marble, and before that the gorgeous sea, and the spirits dancing in the foam, who seemed now to me, not wretched like the wraiths we watched in horror, but some free and wholesome thing that thrived on the sheer brilliance and volume of the waves--the nymphs of life itself. Roses on the floor. "It's time."

  Yet all that we saw now were the gates to the dark tunnel, and the engines made a droning sound, and he played his violin in there, in the dark tunnel, and no one spoke now, and the dead man, no, dying now, look, dying, bleeding from his wrists.

  "Ah, and you drove him to it, didn't you? And this is to teach me that I should give in to you? Never."

  I drove his own music out of his head, I drove it out with mine! That became a game as well. With you, I would have driven out the Maestro and the Little Genius Mozart, but you loved what I played. Music was not goodness to you, you liar. Music was self-pity. Music was keeping incestuous company with the dead! Have you buried your little sister Faye in your mind? Have you laid her in a morgue without a name, already preparing for her the noisy rich funeral? With Karl's money you can buy her a pretty box, your sister who was so chilled and alone in your dead Father's shadow, still, your little sister, watching your new husband take his place in the house, a blessed flame that you so easily deserted!

  I turned in the invisible grip of his arms. I pushed my knee against his body hard, as hard perhaps as he had kicked his own Father. I shoved at him with both hands. I saw him in a flash.

  All other imagery deserted us. There was no white tile or drone of engines. Even the stench was gone, and the music. No echo told us we were enclosed.

  He flew back from me, the Stefan who had come to me in New Orleans, as if he were falling, and then he plunged forward again, grabbing for the violin.

  "No, you will not." Again, I kicked him. "You will not, you will not! You will not do it again to any one of them, and it is in my hands, and the Maestro himself asked you why! Why, Stefan! You gave me the music, yes, and you give me the perfect absolution for confiscating the origin of that gift."

  I lifted the violin and bow in both hands. I lifted my chin.

  He brought his fingers up to his lips.

  "Triana, I'm begging you. I don't know the meaning of what you say, or what I say. I beg you. It's mine. I died for it. I'll go away from you with it. I'll leave you. Triana!"

  Was this hard pavement under my feet? What lucid fantasy would surround us now, what more would be revealed? Dim buildings in the mist. A sting of wind.

  "Come at me again with solid flesh and I swear, I'll smash it on your head, this thing!"

  "Triana," he said in shock.

  "I'll break it first," I said. "I swear it."

  I held it up more firmly, ready with the bow, and I swung it at him so that he staggered back in hurt and fear.

  "No, you can't," he pleaded. "Triana, please, please, give the violin back to me. I don't know how you took it. I don't know what justice this is, what irony. You tricked me. You stole it f
rom me. Triana! Oh, God, and you, you of all of them."

  "Which means what, my darling?"

  "That you ... you have ears to hear such melodies and such themes ..."

  "Indeed you did make melodies and themes and memories too. How expensive is the cost of your entertainment."

  He shook his head in helpless frantic denial.

  "Such songs for you that there was freshness in them, almost life, and outside your window I looked up and saw your face and felt what you call love, and I cannot remember--"

  "You think this tactic will soften me? I told you I have my justification. You haunt no more. I have the violin, as if it were your cock. The rules we may never know, but it's in my hands and you aren't strong enough to reclaim it."

  I turned. This was hard pavement. This was cold air.

  I ran. Was that the sound of a trolley?

  I felt the impact of the paving stones beneath my shoes. The air was freezing, bitter, ugly. I couldn't see anything but white sky and dull leafless trees, and buildings like bulking ghosts themselves in their transparency.

  I ran and ran. The balls of my feet hurt; my toes went numb. The cold made my eyes shed their first wasted tears. My chest ached. Run, run, out of this dream, out of this vision, find yourself, Triana.

  There came the sound of a trolley again, lights. I stopped, my heart pounding.

  My hands grew so cold suddenly they hurt. I clutched the violin and bow in my left hand and sucked my right fingers to warm them. Sucked them in my mouth, my lips chapped and cold. God! This was the cold of Hell. The wind went through my clothes.

  These were the simple light clothes I'd worn when he stole me away. Velvet tunic, silk.

  "Wake up!" I shouted. "Find your place. Get back to your own place!" I screamed. "End this dream. End it."

  How many times had I done that, come back through fancy, or daydream or nightmare to find myself safe in the four-poster in the octagonal room with the traffic of the Avenue rushing outside? If this is madness, I will have none of it!

  I'd rather life with all its agony than this!

  But this was too solid!

  There rose modern buildings. Round the curving tracks two streetcars came, sleek, of the present time, linked together, and just in front of me I saw a blazing sight that was no more than a kiosk opening up in spite of the winter, its portable walls hung already with multicolored magazines.


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