Violin, p.26

Violin, page 26

 

Violin
 



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  "Yes, yes, indeed," said Frau Weber. She gathered up the garment from the foot of the bed, a simple flaring robe of white wool.

  I turned and placed my feet on the floor. My feet were bare and the wood was warm and the gown came down to the insteps of my feet, and I looked up at the ceiling, at all this splendid molding, and ornament and loveliness, this dreamy regal room.

  I held the violin.

  I stood up. She put the robe over me, and I put my right arm carefully through its loose long sleeve, and then shifting violin and bow, slipped my left arm into the proper place.

  There were slippers there, but I didn't want them. The floor was silken.

  I walked towards the opened doors. It didn't seem a proper thing to play in the bedroom, to meet either revelation or defeat there.

  I entered the spacious drawing room, and turned dazed to see the mammoth portrait of the Great Empress Maria Theresa. Rich desk, chairs, couches. And flowers. Look. All those fresh flowers, like the flowers for the dead.

  I stared at them.

  "From your sisters, madam, the cards I have not opened, but your sister Rosalind has called. Your sister Katrinka has called. It was your sisters who said to give you hot chocolate."

  I smiled, then laughed softly.

  "Any other one?" I asked. "Do you remember any other name? A sister named Faye?"

  "No, madam."

  I went to the center table where the large vase of flowers stood, and peered through the crowded, tumbled blossoms, not knowing the name of a single plant, a single species, not even the common pink lilies with their thick pollen-covered tentacles reaching out.

  The old Count had made his way to the couch, with the aid of the young man. I turned around and saw to my right that Stefan had come to the door of the bedroom.

  Go on, fail! Dry up. Dry up and blow away. I want to see it. I want to see you give up for shame!

  I lifted my right hand to my lips. "Oh, God," I said, more reverently than Frenchmen say Mon Dieu. It was a true prayer. "What is the prologue to this? What is the formula, the rule? How do I cast aside what I don't even know?"

  Another voice intruded, "Get on with it!"

  Stefan turned in shock. I saw the fierce anger in his face.

  I turned round and round in the room. I saw the dazzled Count, the confused Frau Weber, the timid Melniker, and then the approaching ghost, who was in fact opening the doors to the hall, and this opening of doors the others saw, that I knew, but they couldn't see the ghost, and thought this a draft perhaps.

  This ghost came striding in as he had walked in life, they said, with his hands knotted behind his back, filthy as if he'd come from the deathbed, lace stained and ragged, and even with fragments of the plaster of the death mask still on his face.

  The alcove stood open to the hall. I saw a gathering of living people there.

  Maestro. Stefan's heart broke. His tears came.

  Oh, I felt so sorry for Stefan.

  But the Maestro was merciless, and dismissive yet intimate.

  "Stefan, you tire me, that you bring me back for this!" he said. "Back to this time, for this! Triana, play the violin for me. Simply do it."

  I watched the small obdurate figure cross the room.

  "Oh, this is splendid madness, I think," I said. "Or maybe merely inspiration."

  The ghost took a chair, glowering at me.

  "You will actually be able to hear it?" I asked.

  "Oh, my God, Triana," he said with a brusque gesture. "I am not deaf in death! I didn't go to Hell. I wouldn't be here if I had." He gave a loud harsh laugh. "I was deaf when I was alive. I'm not alive now. How could I be? Now play the violin. Do it, do it to make them shiver! Do it, to make them pay for every unkind word that has ever been said to you, for every guilt. Or do it for what you will." He drew himself up. "It doesn't matter, the reason. Fancy injury or love. Talk to God or to the finest part of yourself. But make the music."

  Stefan wept. I looked from one to the other. I didn't care about the human beings in the room. I didn't know that I would ever care about them again.

  But then I knew it was for them that I had to make this music.

  "Go on, play it," said Beethoven in a more commiserating voice. "I didn't mean to sound so gruff. Truly I didn't. Stefan, you are my orphan pupil."

  Stefan had turned his head to the door frame, and put up his arm to cushion his forehead. He had turned his face away.

  The baffled mortal audience waited.

  I took note of them one by one; I tried to see the mortals and not these ghosts. I looked through the alcove at those who waited in the hall. Herr Melniker moved to shut the door.

  "No, leave it open."

  I began.

  It felt no different, this light and fragrant and sacred thing, crafted by a man who couldn't have known what magic he had shaped from the barks of trees, who couldn't have dreamed what power he had loosed from the heated curving wood as he bent it into shape.

  Let me go back to the Chapel, Mother. Let me go back to Our Mother of Perpetual Help. Let me kneel with you there in the innocent gloom, before the pain. Let me hold your hand and tell you not how sorry I am that you died, but simply and only that I love you, I love you now. I give you my love in this song, like the songs of the May procession we always sang, the songs you loved, and Faye, Faye will come home, Faye will somehow come to know your love, she will, I believe in this, I know it in my soul.

  Oh, Mother, who would have thought that life had so much blood in it? Who would have dreamed, but what we cherish is what we possess; I play for you, I play your song, I play the song of your health and strength, I play for Father and Karl, and in some time to come I'll gain the power to play for the pain, but now it's the evening, and we are in this untroubled sanctuary, among saints we know, and the streets will be filled with tenderly waning light as we make our way home, Rosalind and I skipping before you, and looking back to see your smiling face; oh, I want to remember this, I want always to remember your big hazel eyes, and your smile so filled with pure surety. Mother, it was no one's doing, was it, the undoing of us all, or is there always blame, and is there perhaps some way finally to see beyond it?

  Look, look up at these oaks that always clasped branches over my head, all my life, at these mossy bricks down which we walk, look at the sky now purple as it can only be in our paradise. And feel the warmth of the lamps, the gas fire, Father's picture on the mantelpiece, "Your Daddy in the War."

  We read now, we snuggle, we sink into the bed forever. It is no grave. Blood can come from many things. I know that now. There is blood and blood. I bleed for you, yes, I do, and willingly, and you bled for me.

  ... And let that blood come together.

  I lowered the instrument. I was drenched in sweat. My hands tingled, and my ears were stung with the sound of clapping hands.

  The old Count rose to his feet. Those in the hall crowded into the room.

  "You write this in the air," said the Count.

  I looked for ghosts. There were none.

  "Come, we must record this music. This is natural; this is not learned. This is a savant gift and it has not demanded the usual price."

  The Count kissed my face.

  "Where are you, Stefan?" I whispered. "Maestro?"

  I saw no one but the people crowded around me.

  Then Stefan's voice in my ear; his breath on my ear.

  Not done with you yet, you vicious girl who took it from me! It's not your talent! It's not. It's witchery.

  "No, no, you're wrong," I said, "it wasn't witchery, it was something loosed and unwound and unsafe, like the night birds that fly at sunset in a great gust from beneath a bridge. And Stefan, you were my teacher."

  The Count kissed me. Did he hear my words?

  Liar, liar, thief.

  I turned in a circle. The Maestro was most certainly and completely gone. I didn't dare to call him back. I didn't dare to try, that is, because I didn't know how to call him or Stefan in the first pl
ace.

  "Maestro, help him," I whispered.

  I lay against the Count's chest. I smelled his old skin, nice, familiar in its oldness like the skin of my father before he died, and sweet with a clean powder, no doubt beneath his clothes. His lips were wet and soft, and his gray hair soft. "Maestro, don't leave Stefan here, please ..."

  I gripped the violin. I held it with both hands, tight, tight, tight.

  "It's all right, my dearest girl," said the Count. "Oh, what you have given us!"

  16

  What you have given us. What was it, this orgy of sound, this outpouring that became so natural that I had no doubt of it? This trance into which I could slip, finding the notes and cutting them loose in certain strokes of will, with prancing and eager fingers?

  What was this gift, to let the song surround me as it unfurled, to see it build and tumble down on me like gentle swaddling for a cradle? Music. Play. Don't think. Don't doubt. And don't doubt or worry if you think and doubt. Just play. Play it the way you want to play it, and discover the sound.

  My beloved Rosalind came, quite dazzled to be in Vienna, with Grady Dubosson, and before we left, they opened the Theater an der Wien for us, and we played in the little painted place where Mozart had once played, where The Magic Flute had once been performed, in the building where Schubert had lived and written music--the tight, glorious little theater with the gold balconies stacked steeply and dangerously to the top--and after that we played once in the grand gray Opera House of Vienna, only steps from the hotel, and the Count took us into the country to see his sprawling old house, the very kind of country villa once owned by the Maestro's brother, Johann van Beethoven, "landowner," to whom the Maestro, in a letter, had so artfully replied, "Ludwig van Beethoven, brain owner."

  I walked in the Vienna Woods, a sweet and mellow forest. I was a living woman with my sister.

  At home, scholars reported on Karl's work. The book on St. Sebastian was in proofs with an excellent publishing house, one that Karl admired. There had been immediate acceptance.

  I was freed of that. It was done as well as ever he could have wished it. Roz and Grady traveled with me.

  The music was mine and the concerts came one after the other. Grady spent his life on the phone with bookings.

  The money flowed into the charities for those who had died unjustly and horribly in the wars. For the Jews, first and foremost, in honor of our great-grandmother, who had cast off her Jewish identity for Catholic in America, but more purely for justice, if not for her, and then for whatever charity we chose.

  In London, we made the first recordings.

  But there was St. Petersburg before that, and Prague, and the countless random concerts on the street, for which I was as greedy as a dancing school kid who twirls under every lamppost. I loved it.

  In every swoon, I told the beads of the Rosary of my early years, the sweet years, drowned in the softest shades of purple and red. I beheld only the Joyful Mysteries. "And the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived of the Holy Ghost."

  It was with the fearless vigor of undefeated and unblemished childhood.

  At home, Karl's book went to press at great expense, each color print personally supervised by the finest in the field of such publishing.

  I slept at night on fine sheets. And woke to look on splendid cities.

  Royal suites became the order of the day for Rosalind and me. Glenn soon joined us. Rolling tables draped in floor-length linen and cluttered with silver covers and heavy forks. Grand stairways and long corridors with Oriental rugs became our wandering ground.

  But I never let the violin get away from me. I couldn't hold it eternally, that seemed mad, but I kept my eyes on it when I sat in the tub, staring at it, watching for it to be snatched, for some invisible hand to take it away into a vacuum.

  And at night, I lay beside it, violin and bow folded over and over and over in soft baby-blanket wool and bound to me by leather belts which I didn't show to anyone else; and most of every day, I held it, or kept it by my chair.

  There was no change in it. Others inspected it, declared it priceless, genuine, asked to be allowed. I couldn't let them play. It was not deemed a selfish thing, but only a prerogative.

  In Paris, when Katrinka and her husband, Martin, met us, we bought Katrinka fine coats and dresses--all kinds of pocketbooks and high heeled shoes that neither Roz nor I could have possibly worn. We told Katrinka to do the limping for all of us. Katrinka laughed.

  Katrinka sent her daughters, Jackie and Julie, boxes of exquisite things. Katrinka seemed freed from a great and tragic burden. Little or nothing was said of the past.

  Glenn sought out old books and recordings of European jazz stars. Rosalind laughed and laughed. Martin and Glenn went off together to the old famous cafes, as if they could really find Jean-Paul Sartre if they looked hard enough. Martin was always on the phone, closing an Act of Sale on a house back home, until I begged him to take over the management of the endless trek for all of us.

  Grady was relieved; we needed him as much as ever.

  Laughter. Had Leopold and little Wolfgang ever had so much fun? And let us not forget there was a girl child there, a sister who was said to play as exquisitely as her prodigiously talented brother. A sister who had married and given birth to children rather than symphonies and operas.

  Nobody could have ever been happier than we were on the road.

  Laughter was our natural tongue once more.

  They almost threw us out of the Louvre for laughing. It was not that we didn't love the Mona Lisa. We did, only we were so very excited and so bursting with life. We could have kissed strangers, obnoxiously, but we had better sense, and we hugged and kissed one another.

  Glenn walked ahead of us, smiling sheepishly and then laughing too because it was too much happiness to disregard.

  In London, my former husband, Lev, came with his wife, Chelsea, my sometime friend, and now seeming sister, and the black-haired boy twins, pristine and well behaved, and the tall, blond, beautiful eldest son, Christopher. It made me cry to see this boy, whose laugh did make me think of Lily.

  Lev sat in the front row of the concert hall when I played. I played for Lev, for the happy times, and later he said it was like that drunken picnic of years before--only riskier, more ambitious, more fully realized. I was dazed with old love. Or love that is everlasting. He brought his keen academic words to the thing.

  We vowed to meet--all of us--again in Boston.

  These children, these living boys, they seemed somehow my descendants, descendants of Lev's early loss and struggle and rebirth, and I had been a part of that. Could I claim them as my nephews?

  We had room after room at Manchester, Edinburgh, Belfast. The concerts were benefits again for the lost Jews of the War, the lost Gypsies, the struggling Catholics of Northern Ireland, for those who suffered the disease that had killed Karl, or the cancer of the blood that had killed Lily.

  People offered us other violins. Would we play this fine Strad for a special event? Would we accept this Guarneri? Would we want to purchase this short Strad and fine Tourte bow?

  I accepted the gifts. I bought the other violins. I stared at them in feverish curiosity. How would they sound? How would they feel? Could I bring a single note forth out of the Guarneri? Out of any of them?

  I stared at them, I packed them and carried them with us, but I didn't even touch them.

  In Frankfurt, I bought another Strad, a short Strad, exquisite, comparable to my own, but I didn't dare pluck the strings. It was on the market, and had no one to love it; it cost so much, but what was that to us in our blissful and boundless prosperity?

  Violins and bows traveled with the bags. I kept the long Strad in my arms--my Strad--first wrapped in velvet, finally in a special sack with its bow. I would not trust it to a case. I carried the sack everywhere.

  I looked for ghosts.

  I saw sunlight.

  My godmother, Aunt Bridget, came to be wit
h us in Dublin. She didn't much care for the cold. Whether her name was Bridget or not she was soon headed straight home to Mississippi. We thought it so funny.

  But she loved the music, and she'd clap and stomp her feet when I played, which made the others in the room--or hall, or auditorium, or theater or whatever it was--rather shocked. But we had this agreement--that I wanted her to do it.

  Many cousins and other aunts came to join us in Ireland, and later in Berlin. I made the pilgrimage to Bonn. I shivered at Beethoven's door.

  I pressed my head to the cold stones and wept like Stefan had at the grave.

  Many a time, I recalled the Maestro's themes, the melodies of the Little Genius or the Mad Russian and plunged into them to open my own floodgates, but critics seldom if ever noticed, so poor was I at rendering anything by anyone else, so utterly beyond control and discipline.

  But these were times of unbroken ecstasy. Any fool had to see this for what it was; only the most deranged would have dragged a sorrow or caution into it.

  At moments such as these--when the light rain fell in Covent Garden--and I walked in circles beneath the moon, and the cars waited, their lights steaming in the mist as if they breathed as I breathed--all I could do was be happy. Question nothing. Know this for what it is. Know it. And maybe one day, I'll have to remember it from some alien vantage point and it will seem as dreamy and colorful and celestial as those Chapel visits, or lying in Mother's arms as she turned the pages of the poetry book, by lamplight that fended off no menace, because none had come yet to dwell there.

  We went to Milan. To Venice. To Florence. Count Sokolosky joined us in Belgrade.

  I had a fancy in particular for the opera houses. I didn't need for it to be paid. If they would guarantee the hall, I would come, I would pay myself, and each night it was different, and unpredictable, and each night it was a joy and the pain was safely banked within the joy, and each night it was recorded by technicians running about with speakers and earphones and stringing thin wires across the stage, and I looked out on the faces of those who applauded.

  I looked and tried to see each face, not to fail each face, to meet the warmth of each face, when the song was done, not to ever slip back into pain and shyness and cringing as if my past was my shell and I a snail too weak for this ascent, too bound to the old track of ugliness, too full of self-loathing.

 

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