Fiction   Essays   Poetry  The Ten On Baseball Chapbooks In Memory

Miri's Piano

by Adhara Law

On the morning of August 26th, Miri awoke to find that someone had stolen all the notes.

More accurately, someone had stolen all of the notes except those found in Beethoven's Für Elise. And what they didn't steal they forced to line up along the staves in the locked and rigid pattern of one of the most tired, most recycled pieces of recital fodder of the last two centuries. It didn't matter how much of a classic it was; Miri had played it countless times in her life and had heard it played by every budding piano student countless times more. She was sick of it.

Miri tried again. Her hands rested on the ivory, then hovered just a hair above the surface of the keys.

And out came Für Elise, again.

She stopped before she'd finished the fifth measure. The first time she'd realized she was playing Für Elise and not the Dussek piece she had meant to play, the realization didn't hit her until she'd been entrenched in the second repeat of the first two stanzas. Forgivable. The familiar had a habit of creeping up on the pianist unexpectedly and demanding attention, sneaking its way into the mind's repertoire and then blurting out of the fingers and onto the keyboard. It was a wonder it didn't break anything along the way.

Confusion, though, this time. This time, she had set her fingers in the right spots. This time, she was looking directly at the sheet music: Sonata Op. 20 no. 3. Regardless, Beethoven shoved Dussek out of the way at the last second like a playground bully and stole the spotlight.

"Just play Dussek," her mother said to her, as if the issue could be resolved merely by speaking the words like some kind of commandment, a matriarchal directive from on high.

"I am, Ma. I mean, I'm trying to."

Miri set her fingers for the third time into the invisible grooves that marked Dussek's sonata. And when she played, once more Beethoven trampled brutally over Dussek. She crashed her hands down onto the keyboard, cutting off the music in a cacophony of dissonant frustration.

Miri's mother walked over to her, then peered down over her daughter's shoulder at the piano. "Well. I suppose we ought to see someone."

Miriam Camellia Bernowsky knew at the age of twelve that she would never be a Miriam, or a Camellia, or a Bernowsky for that matter. And the older she got, the more she hated each of her names, especially her first. Miriam. It was so...old. The only Miriams the world knew were 54-year-old grandmothers with fine, dark hair above their lips and annoying teacup poodles. They smelled like Jean Naté and wore dresses with garish, tacky hibiscus flower prints. She would not allow herself to become a Miriam.

So instead she began telling people that her name was Miri. Her friends seemed to absorb the new name into their everyday vocabulary as if she'd always been a Miri. Her mother was appalled. "If I'd wanted you to be called Miri, I'd have named you Miri," she said. "Miriam is a beautiful name. Miri..." she would say as she shook her head. "I don't know this Miri."

Miriam was the girl who practiced her lessons every night and never skipped or conveniently forgot an exercise that her teacher insisted was crucial. But Miri was the girl who closed the exercise book and her eyes and played wild music with no beginning or end, the kind of stuff that existed only while Miri was playing it. Miri was the teenager who got a tattoo of a raven on her shoulder and dyed her short hair jet black, and who came home every night from school without her homework, but sat down and played until the joints in her thin fingers ached. Miri Berns was the 25-year-old gifted pianist who played to sold out audiences that adored her for her music, her tattoo, her ink black hair, her nose ring, and any other eccentricity that made her create the kind of music she created: raw and modern, bloody and steeped in classical roots, too different to be mainstream and too popular to go unnoticed.

When the plague of Beethoven struck, her mother knew immediately who to call. Within the hour, Mr. Krebens arrived on the Bernowsky doorstep — jaw set, eyes hard and determined. He stood by Miri's side as she sat at the piano, filling in the familiar picture of teacher and student: the towering silhouette of a patient font of instruction, and the hunched back of insecurity that was the instructed. Only now they were older, and the silhouette was the one that was a little more hunched, and now the instructed had the straight back of confidence.

She still called him Mr. Krebens, and he still exuded all the stalwart resoluteness that made Miri almost fear him when he taught her as a child. He was the only instructor who could reign her in while still giving her the room she needed — four others before him had given up on her, pronouncing her completely unteachable and doomed to waste her prodigious talent in a chaotic frenzy of unstructured, free-range playing.

But now was not the time for a lack of boundaries. Now required discipline. "Miri," he said, "I want you to play your scales. Start with C major, please."

She took a deep breath. The C scale. The genetic code of music. She even closed her eyes, knowing the form as well as any pianist did, beginner or virtuoso, but it refused to come out of her; her fingers kept tapping out that infuriating tune. She looked up at Krebens. There was anger in her eyes but worry, too, and she was almost afraid to speak for fear of her voice falling victim to this musical flu.

"Just the C scale, please, Miri."

Miri blew a stream of breath through pursed lips that ruffled her short, black bangs. Fingers were poised like weapons. She attacked the keyboard, digging dents into the ivory if she'd had the strength, but no C scale came out. Just Für Elise.

He frowned. "How long has she been like this?"

"Since this morning," Miri's mother answered. Krebens inched closer to Miri, then lifted her chin and squinted like a doctor into her eyes. He lifted her hands and rolled her delicate fingers around in his palms, feeling for any sign of what could be the problem. He looked hopeful, or at the very least determined — he had a look of faith that this was nothing more than a small musical hiccup that could somehow be exorcised from her hands or her mind.

Miri frowned. When she glanced at her mother, she got the shushing look. Let him see what the problem is.

Finally, Krebens set her hands gently on the keyboard. "I know a man. A doctor. He might be able to help." Miri's mother nodded her approval.

"Nothing but Für Elise, you say?" The Doctor asked. Miri was, as he spoke to Krebens and her mother, at that moment demonstrating her inability to play anything else. Her eyes were dull and bored, and her mouth was set in a grim, pale line instead of open and poised as it usually was when she was knee deep in the throes of practice, as if she would kiss the music if she could just lean in close enough. But her fingers still moved across the keys.

"Fascinating. You know, I once met a man who could do nothing but recite 'Ozymandias'. Woke up one morning and it was just, 'my name is Ozymandias, king of kings.' His wife was quite irritated with him when she asked how he wanted his eggs and all he could respond with was, 'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'" The Doctor turned back to Miri and fell silent.

"Well, what happened to him?" Her mother asked.

"Oh, he went mad."

Miri's mother opened her mouth to say something to The Doctor, though it was questionable as to how polite it might have been -- when there was a knock on their door. She left the two men standing there, Krebens looking thoughtful as he studied Miri's technique and The Doctor explaining how remarkable a case Miri was, and that she was like nothing he'd ever studied, and that he had a few notes he'd like to take down.

Ruth, their neighbor, was waiting at the door. "Hon, have you had a record on all morning or something? Because I'm hearing the same song over and over..."

Then Ruth noticed Miri at the piano. She saw the look of worry and exasperation on Miri's mother's face. "It's Miri?" Ruth whispered, her voice hushed hospital tones. She stepped into the house and walked slowly toward the men as they watched Miri. She took another look back at Miri's mother, who shrugged, wrinkles of concern criss-crossing her forehead.

"Has she been like this all morning?" Ruth asked.

"All morning."

Ruth shook her head and listened to Krebens go on about Miri's talent and how she could simply stop playing it if she would only try, and The Doctor lectured them on her possible fear of succeeding and how it was locking her behind a wall of repetition that only she could break out of. With an epiphanic burst of excitement, Ruth turned to Miri's mother and explained that her grocer had a customer who was a priest and that maybe he could help. She said she'd go home and ring him up, and could she get anything for Miri's mother, the poor thing? She'd come back around later to see how things were progressing.

Ten minutes later, The Priest knocked on their door. He smiled at Miri's mother, introduced himself, and offered her his condolences (which irritated her — her daughter certainly wasn't dead). He inquired about their religious affiliation (Miri's mother explained with a blush that they were unfortunately not Catholic but Jewish, and that she'd tried explaining that to Ruth, who already knew but, though well intentioned, had never quite been the sharpest tool in the box), and what Miri had been like before she dyed her hair black, pierced her nose, and got a tattoo.

And Miri still played Für Elise.

The Priest took up a station to the right of the piano, introducing himself to The Doctor and Krebens, who's foci had drifted away from Miri and were now firmly seated within a heated discussion as to the relationship between music and the human psyche. And not fifteen minutes later there was another knock on the door. The Rabbi.

He'd heard about Miri from the grocer, who of course had retold the story to The Priest after Ruth had told him. The Rabbi swept Miri's mother up in a bear hug of an embrace and then joined The Doctor, The Priest, and Krebens at the piano.

The voices behind Miri faded into toneless noise. She played on, her rendition of Für Elise now well into its 37th repetition. Miri's mother made small sandwiches and placed them in silence on the coffee table in the living room. Two more guests arrived: a Jungian psychologist (who'd heard about Miri's condition from a friend of a colleague of The Doctor, and was certain that The Doctor's Freudian training was the wrong tack to take in diagnosing Miri's condition), and a New Age Spiritualist, who explained to Miri's mother on the way in that she suspected Miri was probably suffering from a karma blockage incurred during a previous lifetime.

Krebens explained what a talented young woman Miri had always been, and he professed his belief that music was the spiritual language of the soul. The Priest's ears perked up. "I couldn't agree more," he said. "God has given us a tool with which to speak to him that trancends human language."

Krebens frowned. "Who said anything about God?" The boom of his bass voice thundered above the music, clashing with the lilt and dance of the familiar main theme of Für Elise. "I'm staunchly anti-God," he said.

The Priest paled. "Anti-God! But there is no soul without God!"" He cried over the din of the allegro portion of Für Elise. Miri, in her 42nd repetition, had somehow discovered a new urgency that hadn't been there when she looked at the piece for the 41st time. Beethoven was mad with desire. The notes, Beethoven's passion made material, tumbled out of her fingers, unstoppable even if she'd cared to try. And then she remembered at that moment how her father used to hold his hand on top of hers when she was little to help her tiny, frail fingers pound out those staccato chords, the ivory keys so heavy and big then. The thin rods of her own fingers disappeared under the broad meat of his, calloused and yellowed, a little dirt sometimes around the nails. She could always feel the scruff of his beard on the top of her head and breathe in the comforting smell of father.

"Why does a soul require a deity?" Krebens asked.

"Because the soul is our connection with God. Perhaps Miri's soul is suffering; she needs to accept the Lord Jesus as her Saviour, and God will free her soul from its pain."

"Now you bring your prophet into this?" The Rabbi exclaimed. "Her soul needs no intermediary — it is her disconnection with God Himself that has put her in such a state."

The dramatic race down the scale at the climax of Beethoven's signature piece had given Miri so much trouble when she was young. The virgin stiffness of her young joints, tight like dry wood, made her fingers stumble and skip. She could only manage a few notes before they tumbled way off course. Every time, her father would tussle her hair and say the same thing. "In time, Miri. Time and patience, that's what it takes to work out the rough spots."

"Basing the problem in her religious state is really not necessary," The Doctor said. "It's simply a matter of finding out what in her past has led up to this unfortunate condition."

"Her past life!" The Spiritualist said, and then began walking close to the walls of the room, searching for the hot spots of negative energy that must be affecting Miri.

Miri's father called her Miri. When everyone else stumbled over the new name, no matter how derivative of her old one, her father made the change without a hitch. Miri suspected he'd secretly always thought of her as Miri, and when he smiled when she told him she hated the name Miriam, she knew she'd uncovered that secret. She was eight years old when she mastered the arpeggio that marked the emotional pinnacle of Für Elise, the arpeggio that filled the room right now. It had taken her months of practice to get it right, and her father had picked her up and carried her around the house in celebration when she finally played the entire piece flawlessly for the first time.

"Fear of failure is a powerful motivator," The Doctor went on to say. "Perhaps Miri's subconscious is suffering under the weight of her fans' expectations of her and her music, building up, performance after performance." He punctuated his remarks with a sweep of his hands. The Spiritualist wasn't listening. She was too busy rifling through her bag for patchouli incense to cleanse the room of negative energy.

Krebens grunted.

"But what is the subconscious without God?" The Rabbi asked. "It's our relationship with God that lets us fully realize our human potential. When we turn God out of our lives, our souls, and our subconscious"— the Rabbi pointed at The Doctor— "float in darkness, looking for that lost connection with God. We are not whole."

Voices flew across the living room like flaming arrows over castle walls. God clashed swords with Freud and the two wrestled hand to hand as Beethoven drove himself from Miri's fingers for the 61st go around. Tears slipped down Miri's cheeks as Beethoven worked her fingers and soul into knots. Miri's mother could hear it over the inane chatter of her uninvited guests. Something different. It almost didn't sound like Für Elise. She walked to the piano and stood beside her daughter.

"God is dead. Didn't you hear the news?" Krebens said.

When she was fifteen, Miri asked her father if he really thought there was a God. Oh, yes, he'd replied. Her fingers blurred over the keys. Back and forth, upward along the keyboard. Believing in God, he told her, was almost a necessity, because the alternative — a world that groped blindly and hopefully toward an empty void — was too stark to contemplate. She felt her mother's hand squeeze her shoulder.

So Miri believed in God, or at least she did until her performance that previous fall. She was scheduled to play one of her father's favorite pieces, something she'd written just that year that was a new departure for her, a test of her creative boundaries. He'd flown out just to hear her play it. He was running a little late, he'd called her and said, but he'd slip backstage while she was playing in time to hear. He'd get there early enough to hear her playing her second sonata, fast and furious, syncopated, a blend of classical style and seemingly alien influences, her silver nose ring and the rhythmless spikes of her black hair gleaming under the stage lights as she hunched over the piano.

He'd slip in early enough, except he wouldn't. He wouldn't arrive at all. He'd instead drive his rental car through an intersection three seconds too early or too late, take your pick, and he'd shatter in the dissonant, diminished 5ths of glass and metal on asphalt while she pounded notes into fleeting existence on a stage two miles away.

Miri's mother ran her fingers through her daughter's hair just as she'd done when she was little, when she wasn't feeling well or when she was scared. Beethoven was a little quieter now. A little calmer. She gathered up the empty sandwich plate and then handed the guests their coats one by one. They walked like ghosts toward the door as she ushered them out, never realizing they were leaving, still too deep in discussion to see.

Miri had lost count of the repetitions. The ending of one blended with the beginning of another, but it didn't matter. Familiar things would become a memory. It would just be a matter of time, and patience.

©2002 by Adhara Law

Adhara Law was a budding astrophysicist until writing swerved her career in a new direction. Her work, mostly short fiction, has appeared in numerous places, both online and in print. She lives in California with her husband, but calls Wyoming her home and hopes that fate takes her back there someday.

  Home Contributors Past Issues Search   Links  Guidelines About Us


Subscribe to the Slow Trains newsletter