Hammer and Saw: A Concerto

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Every time the sharp whirr of a power saw was heard, she lingered there, felt its power and intent, heard the industry behind the hand that held such a tool. Its stops and starts were like depressions of the soft pedal on her baby grand piano, interruptions that made her desire the music to resume. Reshaping rich woods, coaxing them into new creations–this mimicked the making of an exquisite composition.

Rita beamed at the second story window, glad it was open; iut was her ready connection to the world. As the saw labored she breathed a fragrance of wood separating from itself, fine sawdust floating upward. The carpenter was in the driveway below, at Mr. Bellingham’s. If only she could see what he was doing. It wasn’t Mr. B.; he was just able to keep up his garden now, his back bowed and fingers crooked with pain.

She shook her head to clear it, lay her own strong hands upon ten ivory and ebony piano keys. Her eyelids half-closed so they blurred pleasantly. Building things was a declaration of purpose with a revelation of incremental changes. She admired that, and so told her hands to play like that, impress upon the silence something substantial. For once. They moved each keys. A predetermined chord came alive. A whimper of a chord.

It had been seven months since the accident. The car in the twilit fog with no lights, pavement and tires colluding with disaster, brakes useless as two cars skidded across the road, crashed past the barrier and down the embankment. She had been sleeping until those moments; Aaron was wide awake but it was no use. As their car rammed into a tree, it seemed a violent dream.

The middle-aged driver, whose blood alcohol level should have killed him even before he drove, died instantly.

Later, after Aaron admitted he couldn’t form a bridge from his barely harmed body to Rita’s, they parted. It was more than that; he wasn’t good at adapting to life’s suddenness. Whatever circumstances he found uncontrollable, he abandoned. Just as the car was left and a new, fancier one replaced it, he found someone else better fit for him. Rita felt it less than disheartening that he left; she was rid of his random rancor, his impatience, the attempts at true decency. His pun-filled humor had annoyed her, as well.

Not that she wouldn’t rebuild wholeness, sooner than he’d thought. Each leg had been broken, an ankle less ruined. Surgeries commenced. Muscle became flaccid, bone held the pain. Rita was at first resistant to walking. There were many failures. Her face was redesigned a bit–angry scar under her eye, jaw broken then repaired. They said; it felt and loked otherwise.

But her hands had been safe. Without knowing it, she had tucked them under the sides of her thighs, an old habit to keep them warm due to poor circulation. They had not flown up or out at first, didn’t connect with anything dangerous. It was as if  God had known to save them as her body slammed back and forth.

As a pianist, Rita had to have hands that operated without thinking, each finger fully aligned with the others and the instrument. They were still capable. She exercised them, using small rubber balls even when she could not get up. When she at long last could, piano practice resumed, up to a couple of hours if she could stand sitting in the wheelchair her mother insisted still be used there.

But as a composer, she didn’t need special accommodation, not even a certain room or the smooth keys beneath fingers. The notes unfurled as if etheric winds blew them to her. Now more than ever. The accident and new physical limitations had seemed to reroute, perhaps excavate more neurological connections. Rita was charged with sensations and energy she hadn’t felt before. The core of creativity was broken open. Her industry, though, was greater than her stamina. And still she heard the music within and resumed the tasks of scribe with a new devotion, pen speeding across staffed paper.

And yet.

The music sounded, when voiced on the piano, remarkably less than what was ensconced in her brain. There was a similarity that plagued her, meter too repetitive, movements less than intriguing. She couldn’t pinpoint what was meant by the fervor that spilled over the keys, then how it weakened in the final soundings.

“Take a break, dear,” her mother insisted. Maybe because it was her house, partly–she lived in the newer annex–and she was irked by the chaotic attempts. Maybe because she worried her daughter was being worn out.

“I’m resting in between things,” Rita murmured to reassure.

“You don’t rest; you incubate.”

“Yes, mother, I am hatching something grand even now,” she said and executed a complicated run with trills and then a resounding trio of minor chords before abruptly stopping to stare out the window.

“And it may flee your insolence,” her mother retorted as if Rita was twelve instead of twenty-nine. But she left her daughter to her work, fighting back tears that rose unbidden too often since the fateful crash.

Her mother was right, of course, incubation was generally occurring, more so now. What else could even happen at this time? She couldn’t dance the music, shake them out, send them gliding to her hands. “Before” she might have done that. “After”, rest had been indulged–between daunting sessions of physical therapy. There was ever something on the edge of consciousness that needed to be written and played. Her mother had always believed she was a genius–and so needed infinitesimal care–when Rita knew she was just plain possessed. Terribly, gloriously. By music and whatever powers it commanded. By sound and its feelings set free, whatever vibrations and emanations it gave off.

Take the electric saw. Rita had listened to it for two days and every time it started its gentle whine she followed it as if a trail to somewhere mysterious. When it quit so did she, and turned back to her manuscript. But it struck her that a laborer’s machines sent distinctive voices careening through the atmosphere. The hammer and nails triggered a new part: staccato points of sound, was hearty and clean.

By the third day she wondered who was at it all those hours, how did they do it, hands and arms moving back and forth, muscles reacting to a plan, objects being built a testament to stamina. There was enthusiasm. She wheeled herself to the window and peered through mini-grids of screen.

The carpenter was in the driveway, his back to her as he hammered together boards into seeming walls. Maybe. It was beginning to resemble a roomy dog house. Chicken wire leaned against saw horses along with more pieces of wood. Was it a sort of fence for the small garden? Was Mr. B. getting a dog? The structure was taller than she imagined any dog would be.

The man wore a red plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves, a baseball cap pulled low. He was compact and wiry, medium height, maybe a decade older than she. He walked into the garage, moving with confidence and efficiency. When he came back he lay a large piece of plywood–was that what it was?–across saw horses and started up the saw again.

It arose and stuck in her throat, the old residue of anger. How easily he moved and lived! Her stationary life, the time it took to walk from her bed to bathroom, the way her legs felt as if they were made of aged wax and could buckle with undue stress. She’d had a ramp built so she could get downstairs and outdoors but she felt like a prisoner. Rita wheeled over to the piano and listened to him before she put her hands to piano keys once more.

And before long it came to her: mechanical or natural or human, a myriad insistent signs of life, fractious or joyous, cacophony of steel, wood and electric collisions, all a bonfire of activity. It cleared away her mind, rendered it bright and humming. She gave her hands to it, let fragments of music absolve her of burdens, let it find purchase on precarious ledges of memory and then set all free into a cosmos like an infinite net, gathering life music together into one entire symphony of songs. She let it crash and splinter in space, re-merge in new forms, melodies challenging one another, chord structures shifting and reconnecting measure after measure. Rhythm suffused each measure with complication and relief. Rita was engulfed by a shapeshifter music. And body and soul were pulsating with it.

Her mother stood in the corner, hand to throat. She was afraid for her daughter. That renewed power being released! The indicators of a life that was only now being better revealed, the journey to come. But she was moved even as she was confused by music so strangely wild, and left Rita to her work.

The carpenter stopped erecting the little house in the yard and listened. How could he not? Her playing had insisted he listen whenever he was between tasks or during lunch break. He didn’t know about classical music, what it meant. How people could abide it for long. But it had started to work on him. He heard things and when she paused he got back to work, tried to make up for lost time. He suspected he would pay attention to more tomorrow and the next day, as long as he was working beneath that window. And it gave him chills to hear her play, he couldn’t say why, it was just how she worked at it. No fear. The sounds she created, the excitement and nerve. He thought it remarkable, even if foreign. He was glad of being there.

When Rita awakened on the sofa the next day she felt empty. She had written as much as she could long into the night, paper and pen and piano engaged in deep discussion. Now it was afternoon. The relentless hammering had brought her to consciousness but now it seemed over and done. Silence. She pushed herself out of bed without aid of walker and stumbled to the window. The carpenter was talking to Mr. Bellingham. They were excited, hands expressive, arms flung open, looking back and forth across the half-hidden back lawn.

“Afternoon, Rita.”

“Mother–hello.” She turned to watch her carry a tray laden with a steaming mug of mint tea, a croissant with butter and jam, a sliced banana. Such unerring care touched her. “Thank you. Sorry if I kept you up. I’ll nibble while I play a bit.”

“Yes, I suppose you will. And you didn’t, not really. I’ll be next door.” She set it on a folding table close to the baby grand.

“Mr. B.’s?”

“I have to see what he’s up to with all that racket. Will we have a barking mad dog next door now? I’ll update you later.”

Rita spent the next few hours reworking what was dissatisfactory, trying out measures one by one, stopping to erase and notate once again, humming and playing, changing keys, revising again. As the afternoon waned–she realized coffee was needed to stay alert–a surprising set of noises shook the room.

She put her face to the window, uncertain she heard correctly but yes, it was ducks, good-sized, white restless quacking ducks. She could see two as they waddled from Mr. B. and her mother, then beyond line of sight.

A duck house and duck pen?

“What are you doing down there?” she called out when she saw her mother wave at her. “Opening up a mini-farm?”

The carpenter looked up and grinned. “What are you doing with that piano?”

She had been heard, it seemed. But those ducks! She liked the idea of ducks’ lovely feathers and blather, but wondered how they’d take to her music and it, to them. Rita walked back to the piano, sat a bit and flexed her fingers. They were tired; her piece could take a break.

The carpenter–what was she supposed to say back to him? Writing a concerto. Playing my fantastic baby grand, as usual. Using your work as a springboard for something I didn’t even know was inside me…? How about: Come on up and find out?  That might even be goodm, worth a cheap laugh for both.

It was time for coffee, a little stroll with the blasted walker. Then more work to be done.

When she carefully eased her way down the ramps to the kitchen they were all there, talking about the perils and pleasures of ducks in an urban setting, the enclosed runway that was built to keep them from eating everything, the palatial two-story duck house. Rita’s mother had fixed coffee and was setting out chocolate mint cookies.

The carpenter looked up, gaze falling on her walker.

“This is Will; Will, Rita, my daughter the pianist you hear.”

“Nice to meet you,” he said with a lift of his mug.

Rita straightened up her back and lifted her chin, winced despite herself. She tried to look congenial as she took herself to the table. He pulled out a chair and she sat without grace, her long legs encouraged under the table with a little shove of her palm.

“Your sawing and hammering–” she began.

“Sorry if it was too noisy but then, it’s my work and–”

“I found it arresting. It started up something, a host of new ideas. Industrial.”

“–then I heard you playing and it was distracting, but not a bad thing, pretty good thing. I mean, it was…different. Really something.”

“Okay, then.” She sipped her coffee. “Your work is just fine, sounds good, too.” He was taller than she thought as he leaned against the kitchen door jamb, but not tall in that way some men can be, lording over everyone. He was tan and had a friendly face. His hands were cupped about the mug, embedded with dirt.

“Mighty fine music, Rita,” Mr. B. said and nodded. “Loud but real good. You know I love your piano.”

“Thanks. But owning ducks, Mr. B., really?”

“Always wanted them. You’ll see. Good company.”

When they left, Will, looked back, touched the bill of his hat. Her eyes followed him as he entered the driveway, his certain stride a long line of sound only she can hear.

That night she was up late rewriting once more. Will’s face floated through her mind and she wondered if she could find him a place in it, then saw that it was his work, that was who he was, callouses and blood and sweat put into finely crafted things, hard labor–the weariness and satisfaction of it. It was what made the world go around, in part, Will and those of his trade being critical to much that mattered: shelter of all sorts, successful operation of commerce, innovation and repair of brokeness (you name it), helping dreams get built. Even Mr. Bellingham’s ducks need a place. The pedestrian nature of such interesting things pleased her.

Rita played the outlined first movement in full, felt it hold together better, then was drawn to work on the second of three she hoped would complete a robust piece. A beginning, a small act of bravery. Her hands led her.

*******

One year later Rita Harkness walks onto the bright, wide stage, unaccompanied by even a cane. There is a cheerful burst of applause. She is stunning in a simple sapphire gown. It is a full house, buzzing with anticipation. No one expected she’d come back strong, not so soon after that accident, not after so long a public silence. But this is thought to be her best composition yet. Would she come through? They want so much to believe.

The lights dim, speech ceases and all rustling quiets. Rita sits at the gleaming black piano, adjusts the piano bench, then lifts her arms and hands. She lets fingers hover above keys that await an enlivening. And they descend with a force that makes her breath rush out, a sound like many wings taking flight. The audience sits up, leans forward, begins to surrender. Still wondering. Rita loses herself, finds herself sailing on eighth and sixteenth notes, their cascades and crests, rising upward and released. Boldness, now a playful vigor surging across the stage to those who can hear. As she created it. Or the muse created, with her help.

It will be well lived, this life, and her music shouting it out heals.

She has finally come back and then some, her mother thinks, tears sliding down soft, lined cheeks–and now what?

Will stands in the back, closes his eyes. Feels her all about. Some of the  music does sound like his soul filled out in so many notes he cannot name so that he hears his life call back to him. In ways he never knew existed, but which now seem natural. And then his life calls out to her. She doesn’t yet realize. He’ll wait. Until she recognizes him not only in this thrilling, even honorable music, but just as he is. Just a man. One who can help build whatever it is they might need. It could happen: against all odds he’s here. Rita Harkness, too.

 

Before the Time of Vespers

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(Image from La Collectionneuse)

She had gone out one afternoon and come back another woman.  She’d cut her hair. He’d followed her into her apartment, then to her bathroom where she drew a brush through what was left. Dean tried not to look directly at it. Instead he studied her face as she talked while his peripheral vision gave him a picture. He’d become attached to the length of bright auburn. It was as if a lovely tree had lost its final fiery adornment in the span of a few hours. Now Kelsey stood there in all her compactness, looking spare, arrestingly so, and more self-determined than ever.

Valiant was a word that came to him, he didn’t know why. Valiant and maddeningly attractive as she talked about her decision to have it shorn off.

But Dean felt alarmed by her action, as though she’d told him she had decided to become an entomologist or drive all the way to Nova Scotia alone. It didn’t make sense to him. She knew it affected him–she tracked his reactions like a fox, that one–but kept on talking, a jaunty lilt to her speech.

“I’ve been thinking about this a long time. I’m drawn to that life and want to explore the possibilities. Before its too late, you know? I need to simply and cutting my hair is a start. I’m thrilled with it. I wanted to tell you all this later but you barged in and here we are …you always have thought my space was semi-public. Or partially yours.”

Kelsey chortled, ruffling her cap of hair.

“I was surprised when it sort of looked like yours! Funny, huh? Modified pixie, the stylist said. Not sure how I feel about that. Well, Dean-o, imitation is the best flattery. But look, the point I’m trying to make is that I want to discover what will happen if I…”

Her voice faded even though her lips kept moving on and on. Dean leaned against her bathroom wall and thought of reasons he ought to pay attention. That voice was like water falling over him, soothing yet powerful as the music she made.

He first liked her face because it reminded him of someone he knew before, a girl he used to chase around the fields in Iowa. He hadn’t imagined being a dancer before ten. He was broad of shoulder even as a toddler, and was husky, strong as an ox, his dad bragged. Dean shrugged and smiled obligingly. His mother knew something else was fated as he grew tall, lean and dreamy-eyed. Hannah, the girl he thought of when he met Kelsey, heard his secret hope of dancing and murmured it was strange; he was a third generation farm boy. They parted ways shortly after.

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              (Image Courtesy of Tom Curtis/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The two shared the same small, pouty mouth even when happy but Kelsey had a laugh that was a shock of  delight. Her eyes were close to sapphire blue in strong light. Hannah’s were middling grey, like her, somehow.

Kelsey had determined what he felt for her way before he knew it. She’d kept it playful. They’d been living in the same apartment building for a year and becoming friends was so easy he felt right at home with her. Then he began to feel a shift.

“I see you hanging over your balcony when I go to work,” she’d said, “and you might as well shout out your intentions to the neighborhood.”

He’d been irritated. “What intentions would those be, know-it-all?”

She’d blinked a few times, her jewel eyes flashing across the hallway. “Really? Could anyone mistake your looks for mere platonic wishfulness? Let me get a camera.”

She’d gotten her Nikon and started to shoot away, defining something though he wasn’t sure what. Then they were side by side, his arm around her shoulders. She deleted them all except for one, with their foreheads together, eye-to-eye, a big hug keeping them close. He’d pulled her closer.

“I’ve got to get to the studio,” he’d said, “but send me that!”

Later, when it was closing in on midnight, he checked his email and there it was. They looked bright and close as tulips in a vase. He was looking at her as though at the sun. He was going to be distracted for awhile, he’d thought ruefully. But it got harder, not better or more exciting or fulfilling. He danced every day and auditioned in between and when he saw finally saw her she was working on music history or composing or singing some song. He’d sit on the floor outside her door and listen to her sing. The landlord saw him and asked if he was in the doghouse. Dean got up without a word and entered his apartment. She never knew he did that. She didn’t know a lot of things. But she did know how much suffering his body endured, how auditions robbed him of sleep and what his favorite classic movies were. And how he berated, perhaps hated, his competition. She was patient with that. She “got” him while most did not.

Kelsey knew he wanted to be with her. She clarified her viewpoint by calling him “my best friend since seventeen when I shared my love for both Hesse and Kierkegaard with Marie Solis.” He was often thanked for being there when she was driven crazy by the second movement of a musical score she was writing. Or when she had vicious headaches that only eased with a head and shoulder massage. Dean was entrusted with tales about her parents that confounded him and he told stories about rural life that scared her. He thought they’d crossed into an unguarded place and it felt better than most things in his life. He imagined more.

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But she didn’t love him. Not like that.

Kelsey paused now; it seemed she was waiting for an answer or question. Dean leaned toward her so he could gaze into the three way mirror. They looked back from three separate pictures that appeared identical at first, but then Dean had the unnerving sensation they were different, and turned toward him with twelve questioning eyes. He recognized fear. What had she just said?

He stepped away and clamped his lower lip with his upper and breathed in through his nose. Exhale slowly. Be calm.

“What are you telling me?” he asked. “Did you say something about moving or did I imagine it? Is that what the hair thing is about? Women cut their hair when they are about to do something drastic, my dad used to say. So–changing things up or what?” He crossed his arms over his chest.

Kelsey sat on the three-legged yellow stool by the tub.

“Yes. I said: I’m going to stay in a monastery for three months. I want to study the music. The chants. Everything. I need solitude, to be fully integrated into music. I want to compose something much, much deeper. And God has always been a burning spot deep within. You know this, or some of it…”

Dean dropped his arms and slid to the floor opposite her.

“Hang on a minute! Monastery? With monks?”

“Benedictine monks.”

He peered at her from under bushy eyebrows. “You want to be a religious person, like a nun, someday?”

Kelsey’s laugh pinged off the tiled walls. “No, I want to experience music in a different way. Sacred music has its own forms and delivery. It would be as if you decided to take a break from jazz dance and studied modern dance, maybe. A different path of creative development. For me, spiritual development, too.”

Dean flexed his feet and watched her ruffle her hair. She was still breathtaking to him,  a woman who had ways and ideas that stunned him. He was surrounded by vanity and ego and aggressive competition. Yet he loved what he did. It had called to him  just as he music had called to her. And now it was taking her to a different level, a divergent path. He felt his core contract; he wanted to say it aloud.

“Have I told you how much–”

But Kelsey started to hum, then sing a wordless melody. He closed his eyes as a song took shape, lifting to the ceiling, dancing on the walls, reflecting off the mirrors and making its way across the distance between them. Into his chest. It was like a journey with prayer and yearning intertwined. It was her language; he listened and tried to hear her. It was like the ring of crystal. Pure. True.

He held her afterwards, calm only on the outside. Then she drifted to the living room and stood with her face to the window. When Dean left it was getting dark. He had to accept what was, didn’t he? He needed to walk, let his arms swing and his head empty out. He entered the park where they liked to picnic. If he had turned around he would have seen Kelsey in the distance leaning over the balcony, her gesturing hands saying wait, her face blurred by twilight but he was carried by the rhythm of his feet. The tempo: a brisk, solitary dance.
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