Piano notes tinkle through an open window, and stop me dead. In the blazing heat of the street the dusty pavement shifts under me, the edges of my tired world blur. I know that music.
Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major.
But it’s been played better.
The hand stumbles in the trill of the second stanza. It’s a tough section: a scale, winding down through the middle keyboard, coming low, like a butterfly to a flower, and then soaring back to the sun.
My fingers twitch. Gnarled and rough now, but they still remember.
I step into the shade of bougainvillea, a garden path. The music closer, the unseen hand fumbling the cadence of notes. Oh, but they flirt, with the world, with life. The music—alive, so familiar, even through this hand without skill.
I see the hand, feminine and small, with the stiffness of childhood, and a bit of arm decorated with too many leather bands, framed by the open shutters of French windows.
The wrist hangs low. Raise your wrist. Your fingers won’t be strong enough unless you raise your wrist. But she doesn’t, and Mozart’s beautiful clarity slurs.
She begins again. The tempo is off—it takes years of practice to get it right, for this piece. This is far beyond her level of skill—and talent. I know—knew—children like her. Music’s just entertainment, just another after-school thing to dread. There’s no passion, no commitment. It’s not their life—never will be, and they’ll never understand.
And then—like the rudest insult, the worst blasphemy—a fingernail clicks on the white enamel.
"Your nails are too long."
I hadn’t meant to speak, certainly not in that tone. It doesn’t belong to me anymore, the authority. The right to impose rules. Hasn’t, for longer than I care to count.
The music stops and a face peeks out, startled. Finds me, takes in my dirt, my rags. I lift my chin.
But my eyes stay on the offending fingertip.
"My mother says that too." A child’s voice, but stronger than I expected. She’s young, yes, but she has a will. I swallow the pang before it can take hold.
"Your mother is right. Never play with long nails."
"They’re not long," she protests. "Look, they’re—"
She’s too brave—perhaps too young, or too spoiled—to cower, but I see her eyes flicker.
She hesitates, and my face begins to soften into something else. But then she puts fingers to keys again.
"Tempo. Watch the tempo."
I hum, my used-up voice cracking, but it helps. The notes flow, she’s trying. The second hand, the left, intersects subtly with the clarity of the right. It’s not perfect, not even close, but… Yes, the music lives. Here, in the humiliation of my present, when every single thing that ever mattered has been lost.
published 25 January 2012