Toti O’Brien – Fiction 

THE PIANIST

The sound. Fluid, and pixelated. The sound—sweated, and magic. A suspension of breath, then the applause.


     *

     Fluid means attached, continuous: someone holding your hand during a walk. Holding tight, never letting go. They won’t let you go: they have grabbed your hand while still in the elevator, before reaching the wooden portal, leading outside.
      You can’t manage the portal by yourself: it’s too heavy. You have tried. Someone has laughed. There are always witnesses to your poor performances, you have noticed. It is tiresome. You see laughter about to burst on their face—invariably you start clowning around, meaning your act was for their amusement. They think all you do is potentially funny for some reason. Wrong. Most of what you do is dead serious. You are learning how to live, what’s entertaining about it? You are trying to survive, understanding the ropes of what seems an insecure trade. Don’t they know? They are so eager to laugh… and you oblige, wearing your puppet hat, being the doll.
     You have tried to push the darn door, thrusting your entire body in the effort, palms spread against the wood: first the thing didn’t budge, then it crept an inch or two while you lost your balance. Someone laughed then took your hand, slamming the thing open with their other hand. Dang. When are you going to be strong enough?

     Now, a walk is fluid because of the hand that never lets go of yours. Outside, streets and sidewalks are a sort of giant, nasty river. You have to cross, smartly and prudently, or you’ll drown. Danger! they have cried: you could be run over by a car. Those things are blind: they don’t see you. You need watching!
     You can watch for cars: you aren’t blind, you understand velocity, you can run. You think you are quite fast but then, how can you know if they don’t let you try?
     There’s a loophole in the system, you have noticed… You can’t do things because you don’t know how. But if you don’t try how can you figure? “Everything,” they say, “will come in its own time”. The mystery is unfathomable. Everything will come… how if some things are late? If they forget to come? Should you indefinitely wait without taking action?
     You take action. You repeatedly ask. You are denied.

     It is one of the fundamentals laws—so implied you don’t bother formulating it. Things need to be asked for, then denied. It’s a dance… You find it tiresome, but—who knows—maybe its lack would be boring. Anyway they all seem adept to the game, seemingly unavoidable.
     It’s not that things are forbidden. At least you haven’t thought that way. They only need to be pushed or pulled—like a toy your brother has grabbed at the other end. Things need to be dug out, like holes in the sand. You are good at digging deep, narrow holes with your plastic shovel. What are you looking for? Nothing, or—in fact—the middle of the earth, but of course you don’t say it to avoid someone’s burst of hilarity. Truly you are looking for the other side: it can’t be too far. It’s a matter of patience and determination. You haven’t formulated it, but you know. Things can be obtained by patience and determination—against resistance. Resistance is law number one. You push against the abominable front door, separating the world of home from the slushy, river-like street. You pull on the hand keeping yours like a secret. You pull on your chain. It will end up breaking.
     Still, you should thank the hand that insures continuity to your crossing. You should, but you can’t.

     Your steps pixelate the crossing. Small, pointed, separated. You steps are teeth, little dots, nails hammered by your legs. You hammer the nails on the street. Your steps are black marks on the page leaned against the piano stand. You have asked what such words mean, for they don’t look like those printed, for instance, on father’s newspaper—that large thing he hides behind, to suddenly lower a corner and yell at you.
     They are notes, mother said with a smile. You have already seen notes, like the one she has in her hand when you go for errands (the other hand holds you). Not the same kind of notes. You like those on the piano better: their blackness, their hammering quality on the page. You don’t know yet they transform themselves into sound. They remind you of your black shoes drawing steps on the pavement. Your steps make sound.

     *

     Now, the piano teacher is exceedingly tall. You are cross. You don’t want to be given lessons, sit on the wooden stool, be quiet, listen to what he has to say. But you weren’t given a choice. Besides, you understand the thing has implications. You mean it came attached, as some do. It came wet and a little bleeding. Those things you can’t just refuse—you can, but not bluntly or blindly.
     You need to apply some care, for they aren’t neutral. They are sticky, attached, you were saying. You have understood the piano thing is quite sensitive. You can’t frankly oppose it. Still, you don’t want to sit with this oversized unknown individual.
    Predictably, he is interested in your hands. He claims them… how original. He starts by parcelizing them… numbering fingers: how ridiculous… Now your fingers have numbers—they need to hammer keys for a counted amount of times. He’s concerned by your doing this: daily, please, for at least twenty minutes (how can you keep all those arithmetics going?)
     Your hands—so free, so capricious—have been regimented into a foreign army. They’ll wear an extraneous uniform, speak a language that sounds mechanical and of little interest. Should you obey? Should you surrender to this obnoxious routine?
     As we said the question is tacky. Mother is hooked on it… this tall man as well. A promise of obedience escapes you.
     You bitterly regret it.

     **

     Piano routine has grown to two daily hours. She is gifted, the master said. He said it after two classes, promoting her to the written page, admitting her to the secret of curly markings and ornate hieroglyphs. Should she feel grateful? In a way she does. But the scores have lost their magic. Now she has eyes for them.
     She already had eyes. She doesn’t want too many.
     The point is, her talent (what is it, if not something someone says about someone else?) has gained her two hours of daily reclusion, cutting her out from toys, brothers, games, television… Two hours sat on a stool behind a closed door. Is it a prize? Clearly it isn’t. A punishment? Clearly it is, but the talent-thing fogs it, blurring the contours. Can you be talented and consequently punished? Apparently.
     Piano practice cannot be begged off by means of repeated asking. It doesn’t respond to the rules of resistance… there’s something unnatural about it. Not all have to deal with it: it landed on her, alas, like an oversized hat, quite uncomfortable. It grows stickier and stickier. Mother clings to it: a jellyfish.
      She has heard her play once. Mother used to play. Now she doesn’t. Never will again. Why? This belongs to a set of no-answer-questions: a wide coffer adults keep accurately locked. Mother doesn’t play: she does, now, as if mother’s hands took hold of hers. By the way, isn’t she mother’s possession? She is, though she’s pulling out… patience, determination.

     *

     She can’t beg her way out of her piano hours, though the weight of it swells as she grows older. The afternoon becomes shorter: homework takes more time. Little is left, and in such exiguous window there’s more urgent, tastier, spicier stuff she wishes to do. Girlfriends’ phone calls. Mysteries on television.  Challenging card games with brothers. Craft projects.
     She would gladly give up school, play piano instead: the lesser between two quasi evils—she means bores. But that isn’t in question.
     She must deal with temptation, then. Skip practice? At least shorten it, biting off a tad at the end or at the beginning—maybe both. Interrupt? More than once. Lie about it: that’s hard. Mother asks for practice reports—she verifies her progress, of course, with the teacher. If she cheats she will be discovered. If she doesn’t score well she’ll be in trouble. How? Not sure. She’s afraid she will become worthless.

     While her hands—they have a life of their own—play the keys, her eyes wander over the wooden surface of the instrument, beyond the score. She could reproduce every mark by memory… she has read the veined designs a zillion of times.
     She knows all the shapes that can be made out: clouds, trees, bridges, buildings—more than all, faces. Many. Her gaze slips from the score to the shiny panels, lingers on the images, visits the faces, engages in mute conversations. The scenario entertains her. She starts nurturing a weird thought: to kill time, at least push it forwards. She asks herself if the figures are due to the wood’s irregularities and strata, of if someone actually traced them.
     Someone actually traced them. She knows this is a fancy—a lie, in other words—but she starts believing it. Then it isn’t a lie anymore: it is the beginning of insanity. Over practicing leads there, unavoidably.

     *

     She is insane. On the right side of the piano, an arch leads into an empty room. Since her study time is late afternoon, for a part of the year there’s no daylight. A lamp draws the small circle of her supposed concentration. Besides, darkness surrounds her. It would not be a problem, if not for the presence of the arch leading to the unknown: meaning to a room she can’t seize or control. Slowly emptiness starts to obsess her, to haunt her. A cold breath is coming through—a menace. Someone could be there, hiding, then jump out and surprise her, especially if she gets too absorbed by the music—that in the meanwhile has grown complex. (She is talented, the teacher keeps saying). She’s absorbed anyway: the pieces are more layered, the arpeggios and thrills faster and faster. Then she’s suddenly startled. She stops dead, she thinks she heard something. She shivers.
     She has spotted a new design on the wood, in the intricacy of blond and red lines: in the lower right angle. Usually the score blocks it, but one day she has found it. She hides it since, but she knows it is there. A devil. A demon. Not only the face: the full bust, a bit crooked. Enticing. Not unpleasant. Mischievous, in a seductive way.
     Still the devil… on the right, together with the gaping arch of obscurity. She is chilled. She no more dares entertaining bad thoughts such as cheating on practice time, skip more tedious assignments—checking them anyway, on her notebook. Whenever temptation assails her, fear grabs her. Grabs her hand, lifts it in mid air, directs it.

     Her teacher—year after year, he has become a friend—is preparing her for recital. She is ready, so is her Beethoven. She will be a success and he’s proud of her. Will mother? Perhaps.
     He asks her to rehearse curtain bows. “Look at that arch!” he exclaims. “A perfect mock stage! Go back there then come forwards, stop center, bow, count to three, lift up, smile!” But she is frozen: she needs confessing she can’t. While she thinks of lies the truth falls from her lips. Sympathetically, her teacher laughs: “I will cure you. Come on! Nothing is in the dark that wasn’t in… etcaetera.” She has no choice but stepping out to the corridor, through the television lounge, into the room of darkness. Cross it, then come forwards. Like diving in cold water… same shiver, same exhilaration. She runs, she repeats. She has done it ten times. She feels ten years older: a grown up. “Bravo, my little diva,” says he.
      She knows he has taught her something for once.

     *

     Early on Easter morning, she cut her hand with the dented knife used for bread. She was tidying the kitchen to surprise her mother, first thing. Wraps and ribbons were littering the table: chocolate eggs were opened the night before, following tradition. Mother hadn’t cleaned up, for it was too late.
     She’d take care of it then make breakfast. With the knife she tried cutting a golden cord whose knot couldn’t be undone. She could have stored it as it was. Her action was an excess of zeal. Plus, the knife wasn’t the right tool: a pair of scissors were needed.
     The blade tore her palm cutting all the way through, deep, zigzagging: a mess. Mother found her bent over the sink, unsuccessfully trying to stop the bleeding. That asked for a trip to the emergencies. Talk about a surprise.

     She cut her left hand. No more bass, no more accompaniment, for the moment. They would use the occasion to strengthen her right hand—said the piano teacher, unscathed. She still practiced for hours.
     When the wound scarred, she saw how it interfered with her destiny line… She kept pondering: her fate had been artificially upset. By her own hand… the other one. Would it consequently change? The scar matched the line for a while—only, it made it nonlinear. Complicated, arabesque. Then, towards the end it sharply diverged. If the line were a river—as of course it was—the scar marked a crucial bifurcation. A delta of possibilities.

     Though it was perfectly scarred the hand wouldn’t heal. She could scarcely move it: it was knotted, nested, as if holding something it couldn’t let go. Mother brought her back to the surgeon who had mended it. Maybe there was nerve damage, he said. That, said mother, of course couldn’t be: the girl played the piano. She had to keep playing.
     For sure.
     She had noticed the surgeon was exaggeratedly tall. She had not paid attention when her dangling flesh was sewn up. He grabbed her by the hand (the right one) with a tone of authority. Not unsympathetic. Come with me—while he dragged her to the sink he had filled with hot water. He let go of her right and took her left: frightened, she tried pulling back. Firmly he sunk it in water, starting to articulate it, pushing and pulling.
     She screamed once: it hurt like hell. But something came lose. He laughed, letting go of her. “Hopefully it is only muscles. Don’t let them shrink. You need this routine, daily. Hot water, then brace yourself. Move it! Move it!” Then he turned towards mother: “Don’t worry, she’ll play”.
     Yes she will.

     *

     After the concert’s end—she went with friends of her age; the academy gave away tickets to gifted students, like her—she climbed on stage, then respectfully waited on the side. She had started collecting signed programs.
     You see: she had embraced her musical destiny. She had made room for it. She simply kept practicing, progressing—and destiny made itself. Now she went to concerts and collected autographs she then showed to her mother, quite proudly.
     While she waited, she noticed his scorched fingers. All around his nails the flesh was raw, and profusely bleeding. Astonished she looked at the keys, to see if they were stained. She could not tell.
     Her turn came. He smiled automatically. She pushed her program forward, smiling as well. He signed with a flourish—quite an emphatic gesture. “I liked your performance,” she said, meaning it. He smiled more. “I wonder though,”—that was inappropriate, she knew, “how could you so marvelously play with those wounded fingers?”
      She promptly regretted it. It wasn’t her business. It could have been something he wasn’t proud of. “My fingers?” He looked as if he was seeing them for the first time. Surprised, astonished. “My fingers?” He had to be insane, she thought. Over practicing does it.
     In fact he laughed, soundly. What was such hilarity about? “But I don’t play with these,” he exclaimed, giggling away.
      Then what did he play with? Whose fingers, she meant.

🍃

Toti O’Brien’s work has appeared in Between the Lines, Litro UK, Panoplyzine and Five on The Fifth, among other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at totihan.net/writer.html

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