Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: My Prodigy

She was a mathematician at heart, in her very marrow, but what Stella loved secretly was composing music. More than anything, which was certainly a reality of which I had to take notice. Not that the two subjects were so dissimilar, music being built upon a signature of rhythm, connecting notes set aloft by designated half, whole and sixteenth beats and perfect pauses and complex flourishes that just elude my language– but there it was, simple fractions creating all the difference in the world, another world entirely. Each mode of exploration required careful observation of how one thing related to another to make an exemplary, useful and exciting construct.

So she told me and I agreed.

How did this set of numbers or notes impact a prior or later entry on that paper? What was the internal dynamic that supported the growing whole? How did one numeral change the meaning or perhaps unhinge the entirety? Mathematics and music were  both symphonic in scope and just amusing. Or dramatic, even life altering. They were reflections of and underpinnings of vast webs of life.

These were the questions and musings that came naturally to Stella from quite an early age. I know this because I was her tutor from ages six to sixteen, though I also knew from the start that shortly she would hold more instinctive knowledge than I  and entertain me with it. I could teach her facts and formulas, draw up intriguing puzzles of thought but she could solve or undo them before she had left childhood. In truth, she would reconstruct bits and pieces and deliver something new to me with a shrug and a laugh. It was frightening as well as thrilling.

She ought to have been sent straightaway to university by adolescence but no, Kenneth and Aurelia Lanningham knew what was best for their child. The plan was to not expose her intellectual superiority to the common, often specious aspects of the world’s realities until truly necessary. She had to be given a solid chance at childhood, maintain less awareness of her brilliance until…until sometime later. Keith proposed garnering a worthy mentor, a scientist or mathematician within his diverse circle. There would be direction given in time, he believed.  We all knew she would pass any college entrance exam; an Ivy League school could not refuse her.

Stella’s father was an absolute quantity in her life, a tireless supporter of her keen mind and cheerful heart, doting on his only child with a fine balance of affection and well-placed discipline. He had found me in the Want Ads and determined I was “it” when I inquired if Stella had shown interest in geometry or calculus yet and was not cowed by the idea of genius; I had been a rather bright child, myself. And I laughed at his sharp dry humor. Stella observed me after the interview with bright eyes and a few questions of her own. Was I interested in pond life and amphibians? Did I own a number of hats and any with feathers and if so, what were those? Was a lady alone or did I have a favorite beau? She was so young but not intimidated by life’s frontiers. I started my new position the very next day.

I didn’t meet Aurelia until that first 24 hours. With hand held out to mine, she smiled the way a crocodile might before a sneak attack, I thought in passing, then chided myself for my judgmental ways. She was just  reserved. With impeccable manners, she could be charming, was willowy, even statuesque and had the finest skin I have ever seen. It looked illumined and I had to tear my gaze away as she led me to my rooms. It was a sprawling big house, one fit to hold her, Keith, their precocious daughter and more. But at times over the years it felt small, too constricting to roam freely, to allow Stella the joy of noisy play, to hear my own thoughts at night when all was still. And Aurelia, despite her gorgeous name and countenance, was not cut of the same cloth as her husband and daughter. I am not sure I understand even now who she was. Restless, conspiratorial. She had what she wanted–until she did not. But, too, she had more than she had quite bargained for–a genius for a child. Not a mild and dutiful, conventionally beauteous girl. I noted the tensions like a noxious fume some days.

Still, those years rolled one into another. I was happy for the most part. My weekday mornings were taken up with the tutoring of Stella, afternoons spent on my own or with her, depending on our schedules and personal needs or preferences. She worked on dance competency with her ballet teacher and was most attentive to the grand piano, practiced baking with the cook, ran races, built forts and put on plays with her cousins Riley and Harriet who came to visit for the week-ends once or twice a month. Stella had social engagements with children of neighboring estates now and then; in time she wished fervently she might go to school with them.

“I am not always cheerful here alone, Margaret,” she confessed to  me after her tenth birthday party and the small but lively flock of children had gone home. “You know it can get so boring that I’d rather be pricked by wild blackberry bushes than endure one more hour of myself. Especially after so much fun like today. I would enjoy school with regular people my age.”

“That’s why I’m here, I think,” I said quietly. “To offset some of that.”

She slumped in the overstuffed chair by her bed. “You do give me good ideas, but you’re too old to play a rowdy game of tag.” She sat up and reached for my hand, a look of real apology in her eyes. “I mean, I am sorry, it’s true you’re only twenty-three, of course not old, but that’s still thirteen years older than I. And there are limits.” She smoothed her party dress and grinned at me, eyes crinkling beneath pale brows, “Even for us.”

I tried to not burst out laughing. She could be so serious, say the oddest things for a child but I kept a stern face. “I must say you are right, with my older legs I might trip and fall in this maddening skirt and pinching shoes and then we’d not be able to race around here again since we’d both be in trouble. Especially me if your mother had a say.”

“Correct.” She nodded and gazed out the window. “Mother always has her say. That never bodes well for shenanigans.”

We were still a few moments. Yawning, I made to leave and read awhile when her hand rose, hovered in the air as if to delay me. She was riveted by something out a window and I could guess what it was.

“Listen. Our Baltimore Orioles are singing so loudly right now. They so rile up the air.”

She got up to hear better, pressed into breeze beyond the open window. I followed. She took a breath and held it. They were there daily on tree branches, yellow-orange feathered breasts flashing within the greenery. She thought all creatures on their acreage were “ours” and birds were near the top of her favorites list. She never tired of their songs. She tapped out the rhythm of their tune with fingertips on the windowsill and soon very softly sang along with them. It riveted me, always.

“I’d like to write that down.” She turned to me. “Can you get me musical manuscript paper or do I have to make my own again? It is just not the same with ruler and ink, I make blotches rather than notes.”

“You could use pencil,” I suggested as usual.

“You could buy me some manuscript paper…and better ink.”

I knew Aurelia wouldn’t approve of my doing so or her daughter’s writing down even innocent, intricate songs of birds. She didn’t like the idea of Stella getting too involved with music. She barely tolerated the art; Kenneth had purchased the grand piano against her wishes. Her mother had been a very good singer, apparently, and finally left the family to perform in vaudeville. She was never heard of again until she died in some manner no one spoke of, despite Aurelia’s family’s status being the one redeeming factor in all messes. Or it was unknown, more likely, because of that.

She did not want Stella to indulge in many musical pleasures (nor slip down the path to which they led). She had even suggested the piano be sold but Kenneth had forbidden it–he liked to play a few tunes, himself, for fun. He was a harried businessman; music quite relaxed him. And Stella loved it, too, so they’d play together sometimes–Aurelia glaring from her perch in the neighboring drawing room or hiding out in bedroom or garden.

“I know, it’s dangerous in this house,” she conceded, but with a shrug. “What’s the worst that could happen? My music manuscript paper taken away. I’d find another way. Right?”

Her smile gave me such joy. She was invincible, this girl. And sometimes reckless.

No,  more might happen. I could be sacked. But I made a decision. I knew she had music begging to get into the world. I had heard her sing and hum for years, watched her hands play their own way across piano keys to such good effect. Her father knew all this, too, and yet was reluctant to encourage her further. He had a wife, too, after all; he had quite a bit at stake.

I bought the manuscript paper, new pen with a fine nib and silky ink out of my own mad money. And so it began.

******

Stella touched the paper with the tip of her right index finger, letting it meander over the preprinted five-line stave with four spaces, the treble and bass clefs.

Her oval face was pink with excitement as she waved the page in the air. “Do you know different clefs are used for different instruments? And that there are many of them, not just the usual two we find on piano music? There are treble, bass, tenor and baritone and soprano and alto and mezzo-soprano but they’re not altogether different looking and–well, anyway, like human voices in a vocal choir.” She shook the expensive paper at me. “I can write a choir’s worth of music on this piece of paper, imagine, Margaret! But for now I can write the Baltimore Oriole’s song right here, then look at it anytime I want, and hear the melody in my mind… I could tell you more about this wonderful paper but, of course, you know about it already, and I must get to work… Oh, excuse me, Margaret, pull and lock the door tight behind you…no one must know but us!…thank you so much for this, you are a truly righteous dear.”

I took one last look. What had I done?

But she was in heaven as she started, bent over her little roll top desk. Her hand flew across that paper in a series of special dashes, dots, slashes, pauses. her lower lip was caught by her front teeth and she breathed hard at times, head angled close to the calligraphy of musical notation. She was transformed from a rather extraordinary child into a creature infused with passionate calling. Her being was lit up.

I finally tiptoed out though I longed to stay, to see what she could do with it, to offer minor guidance since I read music, too. On the other hand, Stella had a basic grasp of basic musical notation after six years of excelling at her piano study and already playing with finesse. No, more important was my patrolling–casually–the second floor hallways, keeping an eye out for Aurelia’s whereabouts.

Most days it was easy to avoid Aurelia. She was busy with her social calendar, her charitable works and managing the house. Stella and I had agreed on two days a week to start, a half hour each time. After I heard her hum the very close rendition of the Baltimore Oriole’s song (which she had so neatly written as if she knew exactly how), she managed to stretch that to longer sessions as I gave in. Once or twice Aurelia had called for her daughter repeatedly until she came to the door, popping her head out with a sulky, “What is it, Mother? I am busy studying.” I distracted her on numerous occasions and got quite good at it. It was often her advice I sought; flattery had a tempering effect on her unpredictable nature. She began to teach me some about the garden which I enjoyed in any case, and she saw that I had good results with Stella all these years and told me so, to my surprise. I felt some guilt that I was duping her, being the necessary yet untrustworthy diversion so her daughter could pursue the very thing she feared.

Of course Kenneth knew. I found him with an ear pressed against her door one day. When he heard me his raised eyebrows  and smile betrayed his delight, and he placed a hand to heart and said nothing more of it. But he’d sometimes nod at me with a covert glance; we had a pact from then on and I felt reassurred.

I wondered at what cost this meant to any or all of us only once. Aurelia had stored a large portrait of her mother done in her mother’s youth and came across it when Jane, a maid, found it in the attic recesses. She had been looking for another family painting her mistress desired dusted and hung and thought it worthy of a place. Jane left it leaning on the outside door for inspection. layer she informed me that Aurelia gave a gasp and became faint, her hand steadying herself against the wall and Jane steadying her other side, then commanded it be taken to a trash bin far out back and, if possible, burned. The force of her rage and renewed horror of abandonment kept her in her rooms at dinner that night. Over the next few days she was sullen, white about the mouth and red about her eyes, and offered tears in response to a slightly charred roast beef. She had never cried openly. I thought it a mark of progress that her poised demeanor could be so stirred. perhaps there was room for other emotion that might open her further.

But, oh, what music Stella began to write as time fled. I did not regret it, how could I? The child was so at her ease, in her element with music. And I still am not sorry, not even a little.

******

It was only very small songs at first; she would hum and tap it out, show me her neophyte’s work. Then it got more intricate, the music flowing.  She’d ask me to take a second part or third and we’d make do with the severe paucity of instruments, imagining the whole of it if only we had an orchestra. During morning studies she would make time to share the pages and I’d nod and wonder over what was happening there. At times she’d hide in the pages in her clothing or a bag and we’d take a picnic at the far reaches of the garden. We’d take a trip to town, sit on a park bench near the fountain, just hum it out as she showed me what she’d change to make it work better. Sometimes Aurelia was blessedly gone for the day. We’d sit in the music room at the grand piano without fear, both of us cozied up at the keyboard. The truth was, I sang just well enough to add harmonies and my piano playing didn’t match hers even when she was a child. But it was exhilarating to be part of what she was developing. Stella Lannigham had a gift–she had more than one, yes, but this was possibly going to be a magisterial blessing among the others. Meanwhile, she excelled as usual in all her subjects. I wondered how much longer they would keep me. She was far past due for grander challenges; she needed university coursework  and more very soon.

Before too long–the years got fuller and faster with each one that arrived–she was sixteen. There was a party, a coming out party, replete with extravagant dress and food and legions of guests. It was a thrill to see her pull it off, as I knew she found it “a complete bore, Margaret, there are so many things I could do with this money and time if they’d let me–how about a charitable event? How about my very own adventure in Italy, Greece and Spain? How about a new really good telescope– or a full-sized harp? I’d so love a harp and lessons!” But she played her role well.

I wandered about, nibbling and drinking a bit and caught the eye of a man, Theodore Taylor, whom I had met briefly once or twice before, the son of Kenneth’s friend. I liked him. We were both past the age of reckoning, too old to admit we yet hoped to marry but not ready to give up that hope.

“I can’t imagine she would have turned out so beautifully without your instruction and interventions,” he said as we sipped champagne.

“Thank you for that, I have worked hard all these years but she has never been difficult to reach and she teaches me more than I teach her, I’ve long suspected.” I felt his hand on my elbow; it disturbed me in all the right ways so I smiled back at him.

“She’s such a brilliant young woman. I hear she’s a natural mathematician. What are her plans?”

“I wish I knew. Kenneth expects her to enter college–she is due to entrance exams soon–but Aurelia…she has her eye  on a suitable husband already.”

Theo laughed. “A losing battle, It’s not medieval times, the girl can do–and should– as she chooses. Time for marriage later.”

An enlightened male whose touch warmed me so readily?  I turned to face him and his broad hand fell to my wrist, lightly, then my fingers over which his own slid, then were gone.

“Don’t be fooled, her mother is a powerful influence on her husband, at least. His daughter, however, has less and less patience with her demands.”

“I know how much he adores Stella. He knows her gifts and wouldn’t deny her access to a bright future.”

“I agree. Or at least I hope you are correct, as for Stella to waste all that brilliance and curiosity and zeal for life would be painful to see.”

We stood shoulder to shoulder and watched the lovely, fluffy girls flutter by like a bevy of butterflies, and Stella easily outshone them all–her pleasing face notwithstanding, it was her bearing and characteristic joi de vivre that carried the night toward a  sublime conclusion.

“Would you like to dance. Margaret? I was hoping al night.” Theo asked. And that was that.

At around eleven, people were tiring of merriment and starting to float towards the door when Stella’s clear alto speaking voice rang out: “Please stay if you can, all! I have something to share with you as my thank you!”

Theo and I, hand in hand, blended into the group gathered about the piano where she sat. I felt goose bumps race up and down my back and arms. A lump cast about my throat and I swallowed hard. She was not going to do it, we had spoken of it a month ago and she had agreed. Just a quick few musical delights, something from Broadway or just a light sonata or two. But not anything revealing, nothing that could change the course of things.

Stella placed her hands on the ivory and ebony keys and began to play. The piece began with a delicate touch, arpeggios of light on water, swift rounds of melody that danced, then merged with a vast array of notes, a growing tapestry of sound that wove with verve, coloration and texture and grew into a greater story as it crescendoed into something so exquisite that as it hovered there, the crowd held its collective breath with chins up, chests leaning toward the music, and the girl, and then waiting for release. Which came fast, then a slower cascading of notes like leaves twirling within brilliance of day, then landing within a mysterious softness of twilight. Quietude. Fulfillment and deliverance.

She sat still at the piano, her hands slowly leaving the keys that had responded with vibrancy. The room was full of sudden stillness. It had been a short composition, a simpler one than she had been able to create, and yet its charm was in its varied movement and its bursts of happiness, and how it completed itself, easy yet complex at once.

One then another and another applauded until the house vibrated with it. Stella stood, bowed slightly, her eyes sparkling with excitement, even while Margaret knew she thought even then of risks just taken. Yet Stella knew she had succeeded in forging her own path. Kenneth was not about to regret anything. He simply loved her and so he rushed forward and embraced her, held up his hands, with one of hers in his, to the guests as if to say, “How wonderful a thing this moment, how fortunate I am to have such a daughter–can it be denied?”

It could not.

And yet Aurelia thanked the guests for coming with her gracious manner and generous smile, then slipped out the back doors and into her refuge, the garden. To cry or shake her fist at the sky–or to possibly thank God, I would not have the privilege to know. The next day, despite tearful pleadings of her daughter and a well- spoken defense of my worthiness by Kenneth (who did not quite admit he had knowledge of what went on within Stella’s hidden life), Aurelia let me go. With not even a thank you for my service, only an indictment. I had betrayed her trust, it was true, the worst crime as a tutor and in this kind of home.

Stella pressed her face against her bedroom window, tears streaming, as I got in the cab. I pressed both my hands against my own window and squelched a scream. I was not an innocent and had known the high stakes. Yet. Stella. And teaching. Gone.

******

It has been ten years now. Ten engaging and momentous years but without Stella in my daily life, though nine with Theo and our son, Damian. My husband’s work has taken us far from that city, my glorious and demanding life lived with a prodigy who had large, defiant dreams (when young girls of this age are directed to more proscribed paths). With parents who alternately gave to and withheld much from their daughter in surprise or fear and, it must be said, sheer awe. Caring was present, Kenneth’s sweep of love, Aurelia’s rather timid love that surmounted the barrier of her blindness. She gave approval in small bits and later, much later, she gave more I am told.

And there was my affection which grew into love but easy to give, the devotion of one who risks much but knows the worth of it, so cannot help it.

More and more we now hear Stella’s music on the wondrous radio, and have attended her concerts, and read the rave reviews of her compositions which are performed by many others. We have remained in touch, how could we not? Many times I have thought: I was there to witness a good portion of transformation. And it was stunning and humbling. There is a steady glow that knowledge yet gives me.

She has thus far lived the life she could not refuse. As have I. A lesson gained long ago has guided me: that we all are given gifts and pivotal moments within which to chose our use of them or not. To follow the talent or passion. The trick is to let ourselves be led. To surrender, as did Stella.

 

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