Micah, Anna and I were playing piano. It was a game that I had played with my teacher, where someone tells you a word or scene, and you try to impart that emotion by creating music to describe it.
After a while, we were flushed with triumph and enthusiastic at our musical success.
“You should write a book about someone who remembers something important in her life every time she plays the piano!” Micah said.
I loved the idea, but did not use it immediately. It was not until the summer, after we had moved to South Carolina, that I came up with a book plot that fit nicely with it.
What if a family could remember their loved ones through music?
I continued to tweak things, and began to write the story.
After the initial excitement, I was at a bit of a loss for ideas, and it sat for a few months in Google Docs.
Recently, I resolved to finish it, and finish it I did.
Now it’s a short story, and I would love for you to read it! 🙂
A Lifetime and the Notes It Played
by Ellie Cummins
The ceiling fan oscillated, the gray curtains waved in an unfelt breeze, and the pages of creased stacks of music rose and fell leisurely.
The shades were pulled halfway over the old glass windows, and their presence sheltered the sun’s glare and made the room seem very much like a shaded wood. The light below the shade made patterns on the wooden floorboards that touched upon the wicker furniture, and danced as patches of daylight.
Everything had a certain air of expectancy, a restless demeanor.
In a neglected corner, almost concealed by the stacks of books and pages and forgotten trinkets and beloved photos, was a piano. It had been concealed under a ghost-like layer of dust and the brass pedals were dulled with age. The keys sagged tiredly. Its appearance was that of an object once loved dearly, pushed aside years ago for some evading cause.
The sunlight strengthened, as if giving prominence to some significant object, some crucial thing. For a fleeting second, the shadows dispersed. A movement caught the light―a woman’s bent figure. She remained solitary, silent.
Her hands were the same ivory color as the piano keys, her face faded. Her hair was thick and gray, and tiny silvery strands adorned it and shone in the light. She had a gentle complexion, but her forehead betrayed troubled creases.
Her body held itself at an angle, as if something had weighed her down and she had not sprung up again. Her eyes were clear and intense, but her hands trembled as she raised them to the piano. Perhaps it was the remembering that made her weak.
Just as her fingers brushed the keys, she abruptly rose from the piano seat and began leafing through the pages and volumes of music. The ceiling fan hummed voluntarily, comforting the silent mourner.
Bending over, she began fingering the spines of each book, whispering the names to herself.
Her fingers lingered over a spiral-bound notebook. She paused and took it in her hands. Straightening, she studied the cover.
Her voice broke the silence at last, soft in the quietude. “My Compositions,” she said. She fingered the pencilled handwriting tenderly. Slowly, she opened it, her eyes scanning the pages and pages of notes, of dreams.
She turned the pages gently, studying. “My Rose,” she read. The notes on the page spiralled upward in a delicate motif. They unfolded as buds in the springtime on the worn pages.
The woman turned the page. “A Spring Song,” she said. The notes were quick and light, rushing as the wind on an April day.
“Daydreams.” Here, she paused. The black dots of music notes ranged across the entire piano, some ponderous and thoughtful, others light and carefree, all of them swirling in ecstatic joy across the pages. The piece was startlingly like the composer.
She came at last to the final piece. Her name was lovingly written at the top, with the words I promise to spend my whole life with you scrawled underneath it. She was still. Pensively, she read the words over again. She inhaled and read the title.
“A Lifetime,” she murmured, tears coming into her eyes. She touched the wrinkled corner, the one he had folded down to find his place again. She smiled through the tears at the goofy sketch on the bottom corner of the right-hand page. It was a drawing of her in her bathrobe, her eyes barely open and her hair frazzled from sleep. My sleeping beauty, was written ironically beside it.
“How can people be, and then not be?” she said.
There was no answer, so she wandered to the piano and spread the pages out.
She seated herself, her own heart hurting at the very notes on the page. His notes. His song.
She lifted her hand to the piano and sat a little taller. Again, she paused. She looked around the room, as if searching for someone. The fan circled, the curtains fluttered, and the pages of her music rose and fell. All was silent.
She put her fingers to the keys.
The first note – quivering, unaccompanied, full of indescribable sadness – rang out.
It hung in the air as the seconds went by, breathless, heavy, beckoning. It never once wavered.
From that point on, she knew she would play his song. She must.
The notes came as a cascade of sound, ascending and descending, gurgling with joyful beginnings.
She was once again nineteen, and the sunlight was streaming everywhere. The very birds in the trees and wind in the grass were making music, and it was all for her.
She saw everything – the faded quilt stretched out, the picnic basket with the one broken handle, the paper plates and napkins strewn about.
She saw the ants as they jerked from path to path, and the clouds that moved so quickly.
She remembered it all with perfect clarity, as if that day forty years ago was happening all over again.
She caught her breath.
She could see him there, beside her.
She saw the way he leaned back and his eyes took in everything at once, and heard with aching clarity the sound of his laughter.
She saw the way he had rolled one sleeve up and forgotten to roll the other, and smiled at the way his lopsided grin matched his lopsided sleeves.
Then her memory faded, and all that was left was a feeling. She felt the laughter and the earnest happiness as the picture died away.
She kept reading the music. It turned somber, its notes deep and dark and sonorous. The notes flowed into each other in a series of thick and rich surges, one note layering on top of the next until the whole room seemed as if it would burst open with the intensity.
She slipped into another memory, seeing the lightning, hearing the sickening crash. She felt the thrill of electricity tracing its way up the walls, the jarring, searing pressure. The panic. She saw herself grasping at the picture frames, the photo albums, trying to protect her memories. She felt now that same feeling of desperate loss that she had felt in that moment years ago.
She could still feel the pull of his arm around her, see his face as he pulled her away, away from her burning home and into the pelting rain outside.
She closed her eyes. The music was soft, mournful. Each note had a longing, wistful air. One by one, they pierced the silence like the fall of water.
She could still see the smoldering house. Still feel the rain running rivers down her face, her clothes, her hair. She could almost feel him standing there beside her, his arm around her, comforting her while the rain drenched his shirt and dripped from his nose.
She still saw the indescribable sadness etched in his face.
She could feel the dampness of his shoulder as she cried there, her tears mingling with the rain, her back to the ashes. She heard him say, “It’ll be OK. We’ll start over, Mara. God will help us.”
His voice was so clear, so fresh in her mind, that she stopped playing the music and looked behind her, almost expecting to see him there.
But the room was still empty, the silence still real.
She sighed and turned around, picking up the music where she had left off.
The notes turned blissful once more, exultant in their cries and bursting with bright and hopeful exuberance. They danced across the pages like new beginnings, filling her heart with warmth.
She remembered when she told him, the way his face lit up and his eyes filled with light and eagerness and joy. She remembered wanting to capture that moment in her mind, wanting to always have his dear face so happy.
He wrapped his arms around her and danced her around and around the kitchen, singing and laughing and whirling.
She remembered the feeling of trust, of eager anticipation. She had known he was going to be the most wonderful father in the world, and she had wanted to go on spinning in his arms forever, dancing that morning on the warm linoleum floor.
She held onto him while she imagined the tiny face, the beauty of the new, tiny life. She thought of the little one with fervor, and smiled at the thought of becoming a family of three.
She danced around the table with him, thinking of the baby inside of her.
And she thanked God. Thanked Him for the new start. For the fresh beginning.
The memory came so sharply that the woman at the piano stopped. She inhaled abruptly and let her hands fall to her sides. She pushed the bench away and stood up, pacing the room and looking at nothing.
Her eye fell on a wooden picture frame that had been laid on its face. She reached out shaking hand and picked it up, drawing it close to her and studying it as if she had never seen it before.
A man with a lopsided grin, a dark-haired woman, and a giggling little girl were all holding hands in the photo.
The woman stared at it for a long time.
Tenderly, she put the frame back on the table, face up. She let her eyes rest on it once more, then went back to the piano and began to play his song.
The music was dream-like, misty, like the cobwebs in her mind. Gently, she let the notes reach out and clear away the dust, exposing the memories she had hidden away in hurt and uncovering things dear to her that she had packed into the recesses of her mind.
She remembered her daughter’s second birthday, and she amusedly watched as he chased their little girl jauntily around the table, her chubby legs churning as fast as they could.
The two ran faster and faster, and the sounds became wilder, until she knew that someone was going to get hurt.
As if in slow motion, she watched Emma fall, legs flailing, until the little girl was sprawled on the floor. A small sob escaped the girl, but a grim look of determination passed over her small face and caused her to suppress it. Her pink hands grasped onto a table leg and she hoisted herself back up.
Mara remembered him swooping the brave girl into his arms and covering her with loud, comical kisses.
And somehow, he made everything okay again.
The same kisses had covered Emma when she came in on that autumn day, four years later, her knee bleeding and her face betraying tears. He had spun her around until she forgot the hurt, while Mara had gone to get her neglected bicycle from the curb.
Then there was the day that Em climbed the big oak outside. She had stretched her ten-year-old legs until she could grab the first branch, and by some miracle, she had made it almost to the dizzying top. And she had stayed there, stuck.
Around supper time, Mara had begun to look for her, calling up the stairs and peering out the back door in search of her daughter.
A frightened cry had finally alerted her to the whereabouts of her baffled girl, but no amount of yelling or entreating could convince the girl to climb back down. It seemed as if all of her spunk had left her.
Mara ran back inside to call her husband at work, while the pot on the stove boiled over and spilled onto the floor.
She smiled at the memory. She could hear the phone dialing, and his voice on the other end. She could still remember him saying, “She’s where?” and hear her own voice wobbly replying, “she’s about twenty feet up in the old oak out front, and she can’t get down!”
He had said to call the Fire Department, and had assured her that he would leave the office and come as quickly as he could.
He had gotten home from work just as the screaming fire truck had careened around the corner and braked at their door. His face held worried creases, and she hastily pointed their daughter out to him, high above.
Then came the laughter. The tears she had held in all that afternoon spilled out, while she watched her daughter being extricated from the tree. He had folded his arms around her, and they both shook with laughter and tears.
When the trembling Emma was finally standing on solid ground again, he had hurried to her and held her close, while the poor girl cried and cried.
Thinking about how strange the whole matter had been, Mara laughed aloud. But the noise broke the spell, and she was once more in the dusky, lonely room.
She sighed, and only the piano could have witnessed the tear that fell down her cheek and dripped from her chin.
She was quiet, and listened to the empty house and the silence as if somewhere in it all, she would hear his footsteps coming through the house.
Almost listlessly, she picked up the piece where she had left of and let the notes enclose her and carry her off again.
The music changed drastically without warning. The dreamy haze was dispelled, and a tempestuous, strained passage followed it, filled with bits of regret and anger and paralyzed uncertainty.
Her entire body shuddered suddenly, as if she had been drenched in icy water. Almost by force, the memories overwhelmed her again, and she saw what she had tried to repress for years.
His hollow eyes, his pained and hollow eyes looking up at her, always helpless. The hospital bed, the empty walls, the nurses with a dozen patients to care for. The white floors, the white walls, the white lights; everything white and yet nothing bright or clean or comforting or happy.
But always, coming through it all, she saw his eyes. How unnatural they were, as if someone had taken the man she loved and replaced him with a wasted copy.
She saw his emaciated body, his whitened knuckles as he tried to ignore the hurt. And she was helpless, helpless to save him, helpless to take his pain, helpless against the mournful regret that washed over her as she realized that she would not have him for much longer.
“Oh, God, heal him,” she had prayed, over and over during those grueling, sickness-filled months.
Every doctor’s visit, every sleepless night, every empty minute, she had murmured it. It had become ingrained in her, memorized, repeated almost without her knowledge in the darkness of her loneliness.
She knew that he was leaving. And his departure would empty her life of everything solid, everything stable.
Emma knew it, too, and on the days when she drove her to see him, she would leave, her face leaden and her body slumped.
Emma watched it, and she hated it. Mara saw how much she hated it, hated not being able to do anything, hated seeing her daddy like that.
It had gone on that way for days, weeks, the sickness taking a little more of him, grasping a little more greedily, finding a stronger hold in him.
He was so miserable, and Mara felt it. In the nights, when she tried to ignore his labored breathing and whisper comfort to him, she felt how tense his body was, how much strength it took to hold the pain.
She could feel, night by night, how his body was losing strength, as if the very act of living sucked it out of him. And in the daytime, when he tried to eat or speak, she hated how much effort it took him, how exhausted he seemed.
On Emma’s nineteenth birthday, he didn’t eat anything, all day long. He simply sat, his lips compressed in a smile to hide how much his body was being racked with pain.
Mara stopped playing the piano. Her hands fell to her sides, and her eyes became veiled and distant.
She thought about how long he was sick, about how hard he fought. She reflected on how bitter the day he died had been, how crushingly hopeless.
And yet, it had been, in one way, relief.
His pain was gone, the ravaging sickness that consumed him like a wildfire could do no more harm to him.
She had known, as she stared at the still form of her wonderful, God-given husband, that he was now happy. Somewhere deep inside of her, the knowledge comforted her. He was free.
A girlish head peeked through the doorway, her dark hair falling around her shoulders and framing her inquisitive face.
“Here you are, Nonna! I’ve been looking all over the house for you. You never come in this room, so I didn’t think to come to it until now. Mama’s coming in a minute.”
The girl started when she saw Mara’s hands resting on the piano.
“You know how to play? ” she said, her eyes wide.
Mara looked up, jerking out of the recollection and back into the present time. She stared at the girl blankly.
The girl returned the gaze steadily, continuing, “You never told me you could play.”
She padded softly to the piano. Peering over her grandmother’s shoulder, she read the title of the song out loud. The rest she scanned in silence, understanding dawning on her face as she read the scrawled handwriting and studied the silly drawing.
Suddenly, in one of those rare, tender moments that children have, she put her hand on Mara’s arm.
Mara twitched, watched her recollections fade, but she composed herself and let the girl hug her.
The two stood that way for a long time, the younger thoughtful, the older sad.
The girl brooded in silence, her eyes on the sheets of music, on the words written by a grandfather she had never met.
Finally, she said, “I bet he was the most marvelous person on earth.”
Mara gestured her agreement silently, wiping away the tears. The piano bench creaked, the girl sighed, and a breeze blew one of the curtains aside and lit up the room.
The girl began to walk around the room, her fingers trailing on the old books, her eyes lingering on titles she had never seen, taking in the lonely room all at once.
She paused and picked up a framed photo, the same photo Mara had held up. Her eyes studied it silently, critically.
Then, as if satisfied, she wandered back over to the piano and set the frame on top of it. Mara stared at it, dazed.
“It hasn’t got an ending, Nonna,” the girl commented.
“Hmm?” Mara tore her gaze from the picture to look up at the girl.
“The song, it’s not finished,” the girl replied, reaching out to turn the empty pages.
Mara’s eyes were full of tears. “No. He never… ” she whispered, as her voice trailed into wisps of thought that dissipated in the quiet room.
The girl watched her grandmother’s trance with a heavy resolution. As if waiting for the right moment, she listened to the silence and counted in her mind.
After she had phrased her words several times in her head, she murmured, “You have to finish it, Nonna. You have to add an ending.”
Mara shook her head back and forth, her eyes mournful. She started to rise from the piano and turned to leave the room.
“No, no, Audra. I’d ruin it.”
Audra clutched at Mara’s arm, looking at her imploringly. “You have to! You have to write it for him.” She looked back at the piano, and watched the pages of the music waving in the breeze. She looked at the sagging keys and the tarnished pedals and the creaking bench. She looked at the forgotten books and the chairs that wanted someone to sit in them again. Finally, she looked at the photo of the man who had lived a lifetime. A short, shining lifetime. And as her eyes traced his features, she could almost imagine him, almost see him at the piano, scrawling notes across pages and pages, dreaming of reaching people with his music, of adding wonder to a world so often shrouded in hurt.
“You have to,” Audra said again. “You have to finish his story. ” Mara inhaled sharply, and her head throbbed. She looked at the musky walls and waving curtains and at her dear husband’s piano. She bit her lip and turned her eyes to her granddaughter, wishing with all her might that he could have met his first grandchild.
Finish his story. The words seemed to order her, to accuse her.
She thought back to all of the happy years she had spent with him, to the way he had lit up the world. She thought of how he had changed what he could in the world, and accepted what he couldn’t. She thought of the things he had accepted, and how he had faced them. The ravaging house fire, the flames of sickness, the final goodbye. A tear found its way from her eye, and she let it, she welcomed it.
She thought of how he had loved her, how he had done his best, and how he had lived as fully as anyone on earth ever had. She thought of his spinning, whirling, music-filled life. His lopsided personality and laughter. And abruptly, the thought came to her.
He had lived a lifetime. He had touched upon so many lives, and lived to give others a lifetime of their own.
He had wanted to change the world with his music, and change the world he would.
“His life made music,” Mara said, “Music that played for everyone around him.”
With a smile, Mara made up her mind.
“Yes,” she mused, “I’ll finish it. I’ll finish his story. And when I’m through, I’m going to play it for the whole world.”
What do you think? Which memory was your favorite?