Violin, p.27

Violin, page 27



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  A seamstress in Florence made me pretty, loose skirts of velvet, and soft tunics of fine fabric that would leave my arms free in silk balloon sleeves when I played, not hampering the rigor, or ever breaking the spell, yet concealing the weight I hated so much, so that I seemed to myself in the brief films I was forced to see a blur of hair and color and a blur of sound. Glorious.

  And when the moment came, and I stepped before the lights, when I looked into the engulfing dark, I knew my dreams were mine.

  But there was darker music to come, surely. The Rosary has The Joyful, The Glorious and The Sorrowful Mysteries. Mother, sleep. Lie still. Be warm. Lily, close your eyes. Father, it's over now, say the breathing and the pupils of your eyes. Close them. Dear Lord, can they hear my music?

  And I was searching for a very certain palace of marble, was I not, and did I not know from all these opera houses--Venice, Florence, Rome--that the palace of marble in my strange dreams must have been an opera house, did I not know or suspect now from the memory of the central stairs in the dreams, a structure and design I saw repeated in all these regal halls built with pomp and faith, the center stair rising to a landing and then dividing to right and left to climb to the mezzanine for the milling bejeweled crowd.

  Where was that palace in the dreams, the palace so full of different patterns of marble that it rivaled the Basilica of St. Peter's? What had the dream meant? Had it been just the leakage of his tormented soul, that he let me see the city of Rio, the scene of his last crime before he had come to me, and found some sharp thorn in my soul connected with that place? Or was it some concoction amended to his memories by my own fancy, along with the frothy, glorious sea that gave birth to countless dancing phantoms?

  Nowhere did I see that kind of opera house, that mix of beauty.

  In New York, we played at Lincoln Center, and at Carnegie Hall. Our concerts were now broken into programs of varying length. Which means, as time passed, I could go on--unbroken--for a greater time, and the flow of melody grew more complex, and the range greater, and the operation of the lengthy whole more fluid.

  I couldn't bear really to listen to my own recordings. Martin, Glenn, Rosalind and Katrinka handled those things. Rosalind, Katrinka and Grady made the contracts, the deals.

  They were an unusual item: our tapes, or disks. They offered the music of an untutored woman who can't read a note of music really, except do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do, who never plays the same song twice, who can't most likely repeat the same song--and the critics were swift to point this out. How is one to value such accomplishments, the improvisation which in Mozart's time could not be preserved unless recorded in pen and ink, but now could be kept forever, with the same reverence given to "serious music"!

  "Not really Tchaikovsky, not really Shostakovich! Not really Beethoven! Not really Mozart."

  "If you like your music as thick and sweet as maple syrup, you may find Miss Becker's improvisations to your taste, but some of us want more from life than pancakes."

  "She is genuine, she is probably technically manic-depressive, possibly even an epileptic--only her doctor knows for sure--she obviously doesn't know how she does what she does, but the effect is, without a doubt, mesmerizing."

  The praise was thrilling--genius, spellbinder, magician, naif--and equally distant from the roots of the song in me, and what I knew and felt. But it came like kisses striking the face, and gave occasional thrills to our entourage, and many quotes were slapped on our packaged disks and tapes, which now sold millions.

  We moved from hotel to hotel, by whim, by invitation, by chance sometimes, by sheer caprice.

  Grady warned against our spendthrift ways. But he had to admit that the sales of the records had already exceeded Karl's trust fund. And the fund was doubling. And the sales of the records might go on forever.

  We couldn't stint. We didn't care. Katrinka felt safe! Jackie and Julie went to the finest school back home, then dreamed about Switzerland.

  We went down into Nashville.

  I wanted to hear and play for the bluegrass fiddlers. I sought out the young bluegrass genius Alison Krauss, whose music I so loved. I wanted to lay roses at her door. Maybe she would recognize the name Triana Becker.

  My sound, however, was not bluegrass anymore than it was Gaelic. It was the European sound, the Viennese and the Russian sound, the heroic sound, the Baroque sound--all that melded together--the soaring flights of the longhairs, as they had once been called before that tag line was co-opted by hippies who looked like Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, I was one of them.

  I was a musician.

  I was a virtuoso.

  I played the violin. It belonged in my hands. I loved it. Loved it. Loved it.

  I did not need to meet the brilliant Leila Josefowicz, Vanessa Mae, or my dearest Alison Krauss. Or the great Isaac Stern. I had no nerve for such things. I needed only to think, I can play.

  I can play. Maybe someday they will hear Triana Becker.


  It rang in the hotel rooms where we gathered to drink the champagne, and we ate desserts full of chocolate and cream, and I lay on the floor at night, looking up into the chandelier the way I liked to do at home, and every morning and night ...

  ... Every morning or night, we called home to see if there had been any word of Faye, our lost sister, our beloved lost sister. We talked of her in interviews on the steps of theaters in Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco.

  "... our sister Faye, we haven't seen her in two years."

  Grady's office in New Orleans fielded phone calls from people who were not Faye, and had not seen her. They could not accurately describe her small beautifully proportioned body, her effervescent smile, her loving eyes, her tiny hands, so strong, and so cruelly marked with small thumbs by the alcohol that had poisoned the dark water in which she had fought to live, so tiny, so sickly.

  Sometimes I played for Faye. I was with tiny Faye on the back flagstones at the house on St. Charles, with the cat in her arms, smiling, oblivious, an invincible elf, oblivious to the drunken woman inside, or the screaming fights, the sound of a woman vomiting behind a bathroom door. It was for Faye who lay on the patio, and loved to feel the rain dry up on the flagstones in the sun. Faye who knew secrets like that, while other people quarreled and accused.

  There were times on the road that were hard for others. Because I couldn't stop myself from playing the long Strad. I went nuts, said Glenn. Dr. Guidry came. In one place, my brother-in-law Martin suggested I be tested for drugs, and Katrinka screamed at him.

  There were no drugs. There was no wine. There was music.

  It was like a fiddler's replay of The Red Shoes. I played and played and played until everyone else in the suite had fallen asleep.

  Once I was even taken from the stage. A rescue operation, I think, because it had gone on and on, and people were clamoring for encores. I collapsed but soon came to my senses.

  I discovered the masterly film Immortal Beloved in which the great actor Gary Oldman seemed to capture the Beethoven I had all my life worshiped and perhaps in my madness even glimpsed. I looked into the eyes of the great actor Gary Oldman. He caught the transcendence. He caught the heroic of which I dreamed, and the isolation which I knew, and the perseverance which I made my daily office.

  "We'll find Faye!" Rosalind said. In hotel dining rooms we replayed together all the good things that had happened. "You've made so much noise that Faye is bound to hear it and she'll come back! She'll want to be with us now...."

  Katrinka broke into joke telling and rampant wit. Nothing could chill her now--not the taxes, not the mortgage, not old age, or death, or where the girls would go to college, or whether her husband was spending too much of our money--nothing troubled her.

  Because everything in this bounty and success could be solved or resolved.

  This was Success Moderne. A success that can only be known in our time, I would guess, when people round the world can record, watch and listen--all at the same time--to
the improvisations of one violinist.

  We convinced ourselves that Faye had to share this with us, that somewhere somehow she already did, because we reached out for her. Faye, come home. Faye, don't be dead. Faye, where are you? Faye, it is fun in the limousines, and the beautiful rooms; it is fun to push through the crush at the stage door, it is fun.

  Faye, the audience gives us love! Faye, it is warm now forever.

  One night in New York, I stood behind a stone griffin, I think it was near the top of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. I looked out over Central Park. The wind blew cold like it had in Vienna. I thought of Mother. I thought of a time when she had asked me to say the Rosary with her, and she had spoken of her drinking to me--which she had never mentioned to any of the others--when she had said it was a craving in the blood, and that her father had it, and his father. Say the Rosary. I closed my eyes and I kissed her. The Agony in the Garden.

  That night on the street, I played for her.

  And soon my fifty-fifth year would be complete. October would come and I would be fifty-five.

  Then finally--as I knew it would--the inevitable moment came.

  How kind of Stefan and how perfectly impulsive and unwise to have written it himself with his very own ghostly hand, or had he gone into the body of a human being to inscribe these letters?

  Nobody in this day and age had a script so perfect as this, in long sharp strokes of a dipped pen, and grand purple ink--on parchment no less, new, of course, but as firm as any he might have chosen in his time.

  He didn't keep any secrets.

  "Stefan Stefanovsky, your old friend, cordially invites you to come for a benefit concert in Rio de Janeiro, and looks forward to seeing you there. All expenses to be paid for you and your family at the Copacabana Hotel, Rio. Further arrangements and details at your pleasure. Please call the following numbers collect when it is convenient for you to do so."

  Katrinka handled the details on the phone. "At what theater? The Teatro Municipale?"

  Sounds modern, sterile, I thought.

  I would give you Lily if I could.

  "You don't want to go down there, do you?" asked Roz. She had had her fourth beer and was mellow and soft, her arm around me. I was dozing against her and looking out the window. This was Houston, a tropical city, really, with a great ballet and an opera, and audiences which had been so warm to and unquestioning of us.

  "I wouldn't go there," said Katrinka.

  "Rio de Janeiro?" I said. "But it's a beautiful place. Karl wanted to go. He wanted to complete his work on the book. St. Sebastian, his saint, his ..."

  "Academic field," said Roz.

  Katrinka laughed.

  "Well, that's all done, his book," said Glenn, Roz's husband. "It's being shipped now. Grady says everything is going splendidly." Glenn pushed his glasses up on his nose.

  He sat down and folded his arms.

  I looked at the note. Come to Rio.

  "I can see it in your face; don't go!"

  I simply stared at the note; my hands were wet and shaking. His handwriting, his very name.

  "What in the name of God," I asked, "are you all talking about?"

  Exchange of looks. "If she doesn't remember now, she will," said Katrinka.

  "That woman who wrote to you, your old friend from Berkeley, who told you ..."

  "That Lily ..." I asked, "had been reborn in Rio?"

  "Yeah," said Roz, "that's going to make you miserable to go there. I remember when Karl wanted to go. You said you had always wanted to see that place, but you just couldn't take it, remember? I heard you tell Karl ..."

  "I didn't remember that I told him," I said. "I only remember that I didn't go, and he wanted to. Now I have to go."

  "Triana," said Martin, "you're not going to find the reincarnation of Lily anywhere."

  "She knows that well enough," said Roz.

  Katrinka's face was full of dull well-learned misery. I didn't want to see this.

  She had been so close to Lily. Roz had not been with us in Berkeley and San Francisco during those times. But Katrinka had been at the bedside, the coffin, the cemetery--through all of it.

  "Don't go," said Katrinka in a thick voice.

  "I'm going for another reason," I said. "I don't believe Lily's there. I believe that if Lily exists, Lily has no need of me or she would have come to--."

  I stopped. His stinging, hateful words came back.

  You were jealous, jealous that your daughter made herself known to Susan and not to you, admit it! That's what you thought. Why didn't your daughter come to you? And you lost the letter, you never answered, even though you knew Susan was sincere and you knew how she had loved Lily and how much she believed--


  I looked up. Roz had the old tinge of fear in her eyes, fear such as we knew in bad times, before there was all we wanted before us.

  "No, don't worry, Roz. I'm not looking for Lily. This man ... I owe something to him," I said.

  "Who, this Stefan Stefanovsky?" Katrinka asked. "The people I spoke to down there don't even know who he is. I mean the invitation is firm, but they haven't any idea what sort of man--"

  "I know him well," I said. "Don't you remember?" I got up from the table. I picked up the violin, which was never more than four inches from me, and had been resting by the chair.

  "The violinist in New Orleans!" said Roz.

  "Yes, that's Stefan. That's who he is. And I want to go there. Besides ... they say it's a beautiful place."

  Could it be? The place of the dream? Lily would have known to choose Paradise.

  "Teatro Municipale ... sounds dull," I said. Had someone said those words before?

  "It's a dangerous city," said Glenn. "They'll kill you for your sneakers. It's full of the poor who build their shacks up the mountainsides. And Copacabana Beach? It was all built up decades ago ..."

  "It's beautiful," I whispered.

  The words weren't audible. I held the violin. I plucked the strings.

  "Oh, please, don't start playing now, I'll lose my mind," said Katrinka.

  I laughed. So did Roz.

  "I mean, not every moment--" Katrinka hastened to say.

  "It's all right. But I want to go. I have to go. Stefan's asked me to go."

  I told them they didn't have to come. After all, it was Brazil, but by the time we boarded the plane, they were eager for this exotic and legendary world, of the rain forest and the great beaches, and this Teatro Municipale, which sounded like a concrete city auditorium.

  Of course it was not that at all.

  You know it.

  Brazil is not another country. It is another world, where dreams take different forms, and humans reach to spirits day by day, and saints and African gods are fused on Golden Altars.

  You know what I found. Of course ...

  I was afraid. The others saw it. They felt it. It did make me think of Susan, and not only of her letter, but of what she'd told me after Lily's death. I thought over and over of her, and how she had told me after Lily's death that Lily had known she was going to die. I had wanted to keep that secret always from Lily. But Lily had told Susan, "Guess what, I'm going to die." And laughed and laughed. "I know because my Mom knows and my Mom's afraid."

  But I owe you this, Stefan. I owe to your dark assaults the very marrow of my strength. I can't refuse you this.

  So I forced the smile. I kept my counsel. To talk of a dead child wasn't such a hard thing. They had long ago stopped asking me how I had gotten to Vienna. They didn't connect any of this with the mad fiddler.

  And so off we went, and it was laughter again, and beneath, fear, fear like the shadows in the long brown hollow of the house when Mother drank and babies slept in the sticky heat and I feared the house would catch fire and I couldn't get them out, and our father was off I didn't know where, and my teeth chattered, even though it was warm and the mosquitoes moved in the darkness.


  SLEEPY AND sluggish from the long flight south, pa
st the equator, over the Amazon and down to Rio, we were dazed as the vans carried us through a long black tunnel, beneath the rain-forested mountain of Corcovado. That splendor--the granite Christ on the peak with his arms outstretched--I had to see this Christ before we left.

  I carried the violin now all the time in a new padded burgundy velvet sack, stuffed with cushioning, and safer to sling from my shoulder.

  There was no hurry for us to see all the wonders of this place--Sugarloaf Mountain, and the old palaces of the Hapsburgs who had come here in fear of Napoleon and with reason, as he dropped his shells on Stefan's Vienna.

  Something touched my cheek. I felt a sigh. Every hair on my body stood on end. I didn't move. The van jolted along.

  As we came out of the tunnel, the air was cool and the sky immense and bountifully blue.

  As soon as we plunged into the thick of Copacabana, I felt the chills on my arms, I felt as if Stefan were next to me; I felt something brush my cheek and I hugged the violin in its soft safe sack of velvet, trying to fight off this fit of nerves and see what lay around me.

  Copacabana was dense with towering buildings and sidewalk shops, with street vendors, businessmen and -women on the march, slouching tourists. It had the throb of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, or midtown Manhattan, or Market Street in San Francisco at noontime.

  "But the trees," I said. "Look, everywhere, these huge trees."

  They sprang up straight, verdant, spreading out in scalloped umbrellas of large green leaves to make a pure and lovely shade in the pressing heat. Never in such a dense city had I seen anything so green and rich, and these trees were everywhere, rising out of soiled pavements, undaunted by the shadows of skyscrapers, the swarm of those on the pavements.

  "Almond trees, Miss Becker," our guide said, a tall willowy young man, very pale, with yellow hair and translucent blue eyes. He was named Antonio. He spoke with the accent I heard in my dream. He was Portuguese.

  We were here. We were in the place surely of the foaming sea and the marble palace. But how was it to unfold?

  I felt a great warm shock pass over me when we hit the beach and took a turn; the waves were quiet but it was the sea of my dreams, most perfectly. I could see its farthest limits, before us and behind, the arms of mountains stretching out, which marked it off from the other many beaches of the city of Rio de Janeiro.


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