SHE HAD A CHOICE: she could have flown to Boston to make a proper farewell. Gene was sure of it. “He’s in a very loving state these days, Melanie. Very weak, very thin, very loving. You’d hardly recognize him. I know it would mean a lot if you came.”
But she couldn’t. They were fifteen years past all that; it was far too late to exhume it now. She’d made her peace with it and moved on; Gene couldn’t possibly understand. “Tell him,” she said, “that I replaced his half of the collection. That should cheer him up. And tell him I wish him well.” This sounded cold, she knew, but the alternative was unbearable: a deathbed scene, dramatic last-gasp reconciliations—no. Instead, she arranged to go to Europe for a month. As the special collections art historian, she had a perfect excuse; she’d been before on buying trips and there was a particularly wonderful group of seventeenth-century Flemish prints coming up for auction in Amsterdam that she, of all the staff, was most qualified to appraise. By the time she got back, Jesse would be gone and all this unexpected, unwelcome upheaval from the past safely over.
First she would go to the sale in Amsterdam, then rent a car and make her way slowly through Germany and Austria, visiting the big music sites: actually, the very pilgrimage she had once dreamed of making with Jesse. Her own way of paying homage, perhaps; nobody else need know. Besides, this was a trip she’d wanted to make since long before Jesse entered her life, since she was a very young girl sitting cross-legged on the hallway floor, spying on her father’s practice sessions. She’d been enthralled with the great black Steinway that dominated his studio at home, and even more so with the nine-foot concert grand he kept in the West End apartment. Mostly, however, she’d been enthralled with him, her tall, quiet, intense father, so rarely at home. Every time he packed for another European tour, she hung about in the background, hoping that this would be the season he’d offer to take her with him. By now he was long dead and Jesse very nearly so; she would do it on her own.
In a week, she was in the air, the possibility of Boston receding behind her. Tucked into her shoulder bag was a map on which she’d circled certain towns and cities—Leipzig, Mühlhausen, Arnstadt, Ohrdruf, Salzburg, Vienna—marking out a route that would keep her occupied for a good, long time.
By the time she got to Salzburg, however, she was wearing out; after only three weeks of travel, she could hardly put one foot ahead of the other, and perfectly wonderful things—the church in which Bach played the organ for a living, Beethoven’s dark garret—had lost their luster. The trip had been all she hoped, yet she didn’t want to go on with it. Every so often, she deliberately said Jesse’s name to herself to see what it triggered inside her, but—nothing. He was dying, her once best friend, the man with whom she’d thought she’d spend her life, and she couldn’t feel a thing. Yet neither could she imagine going home, had not, in fact, given home a single thought since flying away. What was she missing at home, after all? The daily, meticulous curator’s tasks at the library, her enormous collection of music…. Not a single living creature depended upon her: no flowers, no cat. Why go back? Yet the exhaustion was becoming debilitating. Maybe, she concluded, I need some down time, a few days just to rest.
Meanwhile, since she was already in Salzburg, she made her way to Mozart’s house, a narrow yellow two-story across the square from the cathedral. Mozart was not her favorite, nor had he been her father’s, who was famous for his Bach, nor had he been Jesse’s either: Jesse, who could never get enough of Beethoven’s late quartets. But still, one couldn’t be in Salzburg without seeing the shrines, and so she hauled herself up the narrow stairs, wandered through the high-ceilinged rooms with their rickety music stands, elbowed her way to a spot in front of the glass case that displayed the original scores. Spidery, calligraphic notes. Musical scores, especially old, hand-lettered ones like these, always startled her with their apparent fragility. Yet whole orchestras obeyed them. Then she spotted K516 in G minor, a work she genuinely loved, and the music came pouring into her mind.
“You’re a musician,” said someone behind her. She turned, flushing (she’d been humming) and found herself at eye level with an elderly Japanese man who was smiling at her as though she delighted him.
“No,” she said, embarrassed, “not a musician, not at all. I just like that one.”
“Then you have good taste.”
This had all the earmarks of an impending conversation between strangers, a situation she’d assiduously avoided during her travels and tried to avoid at other times as well. Such conversations rarely led to anything more than awkwardness and misunderstanding and were more easily nipped in the bud than ended after they’d reached the inevitable painful stage. She thanked him and glanced around for an escape route.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said before she could get free. “I’m George Hayashi, and, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I believe I know you. Aren’t you Nick’s daughter?”
He’d managed to arrest her in midflight. Her father had never allowed the press to photograph his family; the only time her face had appeared on the news was the day of his funeral. Only somebody who knew her father well would have an inkling of who she was. Then it sank in: George Hayashi—of course. Famous in his own right: the Emperor Quartet, plus some fabulous solo recordings of Bach’s violin partitas, all of which she owned. Feeling suddenly buffeted by the past, she stared at him without answering.
“I’m sorry,” he said gently. “I’ve upset you.”
“No,” she said. “No, I’m fine, really. Just a little…tired. Not quite myself. How nice to meet you.”
He studied her face for a moment, and then, as though making up his mind about something, asked if he could buy her coffee, an invitation she couldn’t bring herself to refuse. They found a table at a café around the corner, right across from the cathedral, and sat talking under the young spring sky. The day was a brilliant, windy blue, the cobblestones shining, and she realized to her surprise that she was hungry for food and conversation. She ended up ordering a second roll, then a salad, while he told her a story about her father she’d never heard before. “In Saint Petersburg one spring—Nick was in Russia to jury the Tchaikovsky, and I was performing in Novgorod—we spent a whole day together in the Hermitage, staggering from room to room like two tourists with our mouths agape. Your father loved fine paintings, you know.”
She didn’t know. She nodded, smiled.
“When the guards finally threw us out at six o’clock, we found ourselves in the middle of a most glorious April evening. We walked down to the Neva where the ice was just starting to break up and stood watching the sunset for awhile, alone with our thoughts. I liked that about Nick, that he didn’t have to talk. Then we went and had a good Georgian dinner and parted.”
She had to admit that this old man was remarkably appealing. His skin, for example: a sort of warm rose gold and hardly wrinkled, though she figured he had to be at least seventy-five. Spry, healthy, and clean, he was wearing a red bowtie and a gray fedora: nice touches. She always noticed how people looked and what they wore—whether or not their clothes were good—though she tried not to: an unwelcome legacy from her socialite mother. She smiled without meaning to, and he smiled back with his merry Japanese eyes, saying, “May I ask where you are headed next?”
Next, according to her marked-up map, was Vienna, but she couldn’t quite imagine it, not with the way she’d been dragging along for the past few days. “I’m not sure,” she said. “Maybe just some place to rest for a bit.”
“I know of a wonderful place in the Alps,” he said. “Not far—eighty kilometers, perhaps? But the road is fine, very beautiful. And plenty of excellent gasthauses and pensiones in the town. A lovely lake, good food, a funicular up the mountain—even a famous ossuary.” He paused. “I’m going there tomorrow, in fact.”
The invitation seemed to her to be unmistakable. She pondered, surprised to realize she was actually tempted. He was delightful, after all, and would no doubt make a good traveling companion, though she’d never traveled with anyone before. Would she tire of his company? It would only be for a few days, but still…. She felt herself tightening fearfully. What if he talked too much or tired out easily or suddenly revealed a perversity she couldn’t handle?
Then she thought of the two of them on the banks of the Neva River, this charming old violinist and her father, and decided to take a chance on it. “Would you mind,” she found herself asking, “if I joined you?”
When they’d made their arrangements to meet the following morning, she shook his hand and watched until he’d disappeared around the corner. Then, with nothing else to do, she wandered across the square to the cathedral where Mozart had conducted his famous missas. As in every other Baroque church, it was like being inside a wedding cake of sky-blue and white and gilt. She walked around, peering into side chapels and avoiding the other tourists, then finally came to the usual bank of flickering tapers, where several people knelt praying.
She wondered how that went—what you said and what you expected out of it. One woman, in particular, seemed to be going on and on, and a young man, otherwise perfectly normal-looking, kept crossing himself as he prayed. She waited until they both got up, then looked around. Nobody was watching, so she pulled a long match from the bowl of sand that sat beside the kneeler, lit one of the candles, and knelt for a moment, closing her eyes. It made no sense for her to do this, given her beliefs, or rather lack of them, but maybe Jesse would somehow feel her wishing him well. Who knew, maybe he even held the beliefs she didn’t. People changed, especially when they were afraid and dying.
George was right: Hallstatt was glorious, exactly what she needed. They took adjoining rooms in a five-hundred-year-old gasthaus with slick plank floors and rag rugs that slipped out from beneath her feet. Her back window, thick-paned and blurry, moaned when she tried to lift the swollen wood sash; nevertheless, every morning she coaxed it open a few inches to let in the dawn-chilled air. There she stood, shivering pleasurably, while she waited for the lakeshore to come alive. Below her, bright, tenacious flowers burst from cracks in the granite walls.
After coffee with George, she would wander alone through the narrow streets of the village and down to the water’s edge. Here, she sat on her towel in her white shorts and sleeveless blouse, trying to read a book or write in her journal. More often than not, she’d startle awake hours later, her neck cramped and her bare shoulders burning—a good excuse to buy a beer and move herself into the shade, where she sipped away the afternoon, languorously watching the swans or gazing up at the paragliders. Strapped into chutes of flaming orange and purple and chartreuse, young men leapt from the highest points in the Alps; she could hear their jubilant shouts as they drifted down past the sheer granite faces, the forest of pines, the medieval church a thousand feet above the village.
She had no idea what George did during the day, nor did she feel inclined to ask, despite a mildly guilty conscience at times. After all, she owed this much-needed respite to him; the least she could do was offer to see the sights. The famous Hallstatt ossuary, for example: according to her guidebook, the cave filled with bones extracted from the overcrowded church graveyard was an absolute “must-see.” Or the funicular: she could surely offer to take him on the perpendicular ride to the top of the mountain, couldn’t she?
However, stasis had by now completely claimed her, and besides, she was fulfilling her role as guest during the evenings. Each night he chose a different place for dinner, beamingly pleased when she seemed to enjoy the food, and afterward they took a stroll, usually ending at a bench by the small dock where they sat watching for the first stars. Sometimes, from a neighboring village, a flat-bottomed barge filled with half-drunk, hooting young men came slowly toward them on the point of a platinum wake. Sometimes, there were only the swans, white as camellias, tracing slow circles on the black water.
She was grateful during these companionable moments that George didn’t try to force her into any kind of serious conversation. Really, what was there to talk about? Conversation, especially about her father, would only take her back.
On the fourth day as she stood by the open window with the chill dawn air washing over her, she had a sudden urgent desire to call Gene. She’d been away from home almost a month; Jesse must be gone by now, or very close; surely something had happened by this time. He’s very weak, Gene had said, and very thin. She hugged her arms to her chest, willing herself to leave the whole Jesse situation alone. However, the fact was that during her lazy and unfocused hours at the lake, he’d become present to her in a way he hadn’t been in years.
She kept visualizing his apartment, for example. She’d always thought his apartment suited him in a way few people’s spaces ever did. Certainly it was not a typical college student’s dwelling. In place of the usual row of empty beer bottles and black pirate’s flag on the wall were framed sheets of pressed wildflowers, collected, identified, and labeled by Jesse himself. In place of the usual brick-and-plank bookshelf was an antique lacquered Chinese desk. He’d painted his walls in three different primary colors, which for some reason pleased her beyond measure, though she never admitted this out loud.
They sat on cushions on the wood floor, drinking tea and listening to music. They were always listening to music. It was what they did together, and when they talked, it was about Bach and Beethoven and Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, Bartok and Franck, as though they were older than twenty and actual musicians besides. Had they been shy? She didn’t think so. She would glance over at him sitting cross-legged on his cushion, slender Jesse with his long-sleeved white shirts and the dark hair that was always in his eyes, and she would brim over with…what? Perhaps it had been something as mundane as simple contentment: the deep and utter contentment of two cats, stretched before a fire. But then again, perhaps not after all.
In keeping with their unspoken understanding, she never gave him gifts, not directly, but instead watched for what he was missing, then slipped the CDs into the long bins in which he kept his collection. This pleased her, this secret giving, and the next time she came by, he’d play one of them to show her he’d noticed, both of them basking in the silent camaraderie.
Thus it was a shock the day she showed up at his apartment and he asked her if they could have “a talk.” “About what?” she’d asked, feeling her mouth go dry at the dark, nervous glance with which he answered her. After that one look, he could not meet her eyes throughout his entire convoluted speech, and this is why she at first decided he had gone mad. How could he just now be figuring out something this major? Wouldn’t he have known this about himself for years? “Don’t be upset,” he added, obviously trying to reassure her. “I haven’t done anything about it yet.”
The thought that he pitied her made it difficult to breathe. “I’m not in love with you, you know,” she said, and it came out more coldly than she intended. “Did you think that’s what’s been going on? Me just mooning around waiting for you to…? Give me a break, Jesse.”
He looked, if possible, even more devastated. “I just needed to let you know, Melanie,” he said in a tender, guilty voice.
“Is it Gene?” she said. “Is that it? A guy who listens to show tunes?” Without meaning to, she made a dramatic, Gene-like pause and they both burst into strained laughter at the thought of it being Gene, not that they both didn’t love him.
“It’s not Gene,” he said. “It’s not anybody—that’s the point.”
“Then I don’t see the problem,” she said, still sounding self-possessed even as everything was collapsing inside of her. “Why can’t we just go on the way we’ve been? I wouldn’t expect anything. You wouldn’t be going against your precious whatever-you-called-it—your nature.”
He winced, and for a moment she thought he might cry. Good, she thought. Let him. He should feel terrible. What is he thinking? “But I don’t want to go on this way,” he said finally. “Melanie, you make me…lonely. I don’t know how else to put it. Being with you makes me feel hopeless. I keep thinking about how I want my life to be and then hating myself.”
“Hating yourself? Oh, come on, Jess.”
“But I do, Melanie. I hate myself for just going along with things. For being afraid to take a chance.”
He shifted uneasily, then lifted his palms and sighed, as though the words hurt him to say. “On something more meaningful than just treading water, I guess.”
She stared at him, stunned finally into silence.
“Well, anyway,” he said, and then his hands dropped to his sides and she saw that he didn’t know what to do, that he was just as baffled as she was and that he was waiting for her to help them salvage something precious that was dying. But her jaw was locked tight with shame and hot anger—rejected! by Jesse!—and no words could get out. They stood there for an awkward moment, and then she left. A week later, he sent her a package: all the music she’d ever bought for him.
Now, as she stood by the gasthaus window, she wondered what Gene had meant by “very loving.” For that was the third thing: very weak, very thin, very loving. She wondered if that meant Jesse had forgiven her that tight jaw, or that he was now capable of it, or that he at least wished he were. If that were true, then why wasn’t she in Boston, helping him die?
She didn’t call after all; she had her coffee with George, then sat in her room looking at her map and reading about Vienna. It was clear that in this emotional state of hers, she needed to be completely alone. If she left Hallstatt the next day, she could still finish up her trip the way she’d planned. George would of course be very disappointed—he’d grown fond of her—but she’d never made any promises.
Yet that evening as they sat together on the bench under the indigo sky, she thought about her impending departure and felt the pricking of guilt. He’d been really wonderful, she had to admit: kind, circumspect, sensitive. He’d helped her when she needed helping. It didn’t seem fair to slip away without at least trying to explain. “George,” she began, “I hope you know how much I’ve appreciated all this.” She gestured at the lake, the swans, the quaint town in which they’d shared so many fine meals.
He reached for the cane he used on their strolls, setting it upright before him and placing both hands on top before turning to scan her face in the gathering darkness. Then, gently: “So you are leaving me.”
“No, no,” she protested, “at least, not exactly. I’m planning to move on tomorrow morning, yes, but that doesn’t really constitute leaving, does it? In the sense of abandoning anything? We’ll keep in touch. I promise.”
He shook his head, gave her a crooked half-smile. “When you are my age, goodbyes are unfortunately often permanent.”
She fell into an exasperated silence. Couldn’t he see that he was only making it harder for both of them?
Sighing, he turned his gaze back to the lake. Then he swayed forward against the cane as though suddenly unbearably weary, though his tone was, predictably enough, kindly and reassuring. “Don’t fret,” he said. “I do understand. And I’m very grateful for this week out of your life.”
She thought back over her hours of lounging heedlessly on the lakeshore, of the way she’d so deliberately catered to her own private needs. What could he be talking about? Was he that blind?
A lone swan, a misplaced straggler, drifted past almost out of their line of sight, and she followed it with her eyes, grateful for the space of quiet. Then George took up his little speech again, and the sudden emotion in his voice made her flinch. “Unlike your fortunate father, I never had a child. By choice, I have to admit. My wife wanted one very much, and my refusal almost cost us our marriage. I was convinced a family would hamper my career.”
Pulling against the cane, he turned and faced her again, and it took her a moment to realize what he was doing: memorizing the details of her countenance as though she were a precious work of art he’d never see again. Oh, George, no! she wanted to protest. I’m not worth it! He went on, “But now that I am old, things look quite different. The clichéd regrets of old age, I suppose, but still…it’s all surprisingly painful. I thank you for this taste of the life I so arrogantly rejected.”
This was too much. Flustered and speechless, she shifted her gaze back to the disappearing swan. For of course, she’d planned to fade from George’s life without a backward glance, not that she wouldn’t have indulged herself in the occasional fond image of his red bowtie and the flowers spilling from the granite walls of Hallstatt. She’d intended to go on as she always had, private, self-sufficient, alone. Now she wondered, who could ever love someone as incredibly self-centered as that? Poor Jesse: he’d been right to go, yet all she’d done for years was hate him for it.
George, damn him—he’d made her cry in public, the first time she could remember ever doing so. She flicked surreptitiously at her wet lashes, but the tears kept brimming and overflowing. Was she so very like him after all, her quiet, emotionally disconnected father?
He’d been a bachelor overly long, that’s what her mother said. Too many years of doing things his own way, of never needing to think of anyone but himself. Her mother offered these facts as she herself was dressing for yet another night out. Six-year-old Melanie sat on the bed behind her, fascinated as always by the image of her mother in the mirror drawing on lipstick and stroking her lashes with a mascara brush, by the way her mother turned and posed, giving herself critical, appraising looks. Her father was gone again: performing, on tour, recording, or maybe just practicing alone in the West End apartment. Anywhere, her mother reminded her sternly, but in the Hamptons, where his wife and daughter resided virtually on their own.
Then—rustling, shining, perfumed—she was out the door too, the maid as usual left to babysit. These nights were long, and Melanie often lay sleepless until she heard her mother’s key turning in the lock, the click of her heels up the stairs and down the hallway toward her daughter’s room, the creak of the door as she paused for a quick glance inside. Afterwards, her mother usually slept in until noon; it was the faithful maid who gave Melanie her breakfast, brushed her hair, and made sure she got to her first-grade classroom on time.
Her unhappy parents delayed filing for divorce until the month she graduated from high school. It became final during her freshman year in college; her mother remarried immediately and moved to Arizona with her new husband, a silver-haired real estate developer. Melanie did not attend their wedding. She met Jesse a year later, and two years after that, her half of the music collection came back to her in the mail. The following Christmas, her famous father shocked the piano world by dying at sixty-four.
Now here she sat on a bench in the dark with someone who’d known him far better than she had. Sorrow welled up within her and spilled down her cheeks in rivulets; she was desperate for a Kleenex, which was not to be found in either of her pockets. George wordlessly handed her his monogrammed handkerchief, and she blew her nose and patted her wet eyes, then took a shuddering breath. “There’s something else going on right now, George, not about you. I’ve got a situation with a good friend. He’s in the hospital. I think I should be there.”
“And that’s what all these tears are about?” He leaned in as if to make sure.
She drew in another shaky breath. “Not entirely, no. I just don’t think I can talk about it, is all.”
He sat back against the bench, thoughtfully quiet. Then he stirred and gave her hand a pat before using the cane to pull himself to his feet. He waited for her to get up, and when she didn’t, he rapped the metal tip against the cobblestones. “Come, come, my friend, time for bed. You’ve got a plane to catch tomorrow.”
Back in her room, she packed haphazardly, then called the airline to see if she could get her ticket changed to Boston. She felt dazed and incompetent, though making the decision to fly home to Jesse’s bedside had helped. But what if she’d waited too long? She probably had—she’d meant to, after all. But she had to try. That was the thing.
With all the arrangements made, she still could not sleep, though oddly enough she wasn’t thinking of Jesse. It was George who now haunted her: he was so old. How much longer could he last? She couldn’t believe it, but he’d become immensely dear to her, just in the space of an hour.
When her father had had his precipitous heart attack, she’d reeled at first under the outpouring of music-world grief. Everyone seemed to have something to say. Critics mourned the loss of such a major musical intellect; former students recalled with gratitude the solid foundation he’d laid for them; famous fans—an ex-president, an archbishop—spoke movingly of some memorable performance.
For a day or two, she let herself believe all this had something to do with her, that somehow they understood the huge hole in her heart that had been there long before he died. For a day or two, she’d read everything they said about him as voraciously as a star-struck fan, trying to get some handful for herself before the last sparklings faded forever; then she realized the truth: none of it had to do with the great man’s daughter. This was public mourning, a kind of spectacle. She was on her own. Instead, she got the awful tasks of dealing with the West End apartment, of putting the two Steinways into storage, of sorting through the accumulated paraphernalia of twenty-five years of married bachelorhood.
She turned over in bed, twisting the comforter around her feet, which were cold, and throwing it away from her shoulders. She wished, after all, she’d had time to visit the ossuary. According to her guidebook, it was a very Austrian, organized place. Pyramids of skulls, piled on tables, and bundles of limb bones—tibias, fibulas, femurs, radiuses, ulnas—stacked on the shelves beneath them. Skeletons exhumed from the churchyard outside when their twelve-year lease was up. The families took care of this job, scrubbing the bones first, polishing them like fine wood, then painting them with intricate wreaths of roses and ivy along with their names and dates. Awful, but strangely beautiful, too: she could almost wish she were a Hallstatter, charged with such intimate duties toward the dead.
She turned again, crushing the down pillow against her chest and pulling the comforter back up over her shoulders. For fifteen years, and long before that, some momentum generated by her sense of being harshly and unfairly wounded had carried her through life, and now, she realized, the angry forward thrust had suddenly petered out. Here she lay, suspended between her disappointing childhood and a future she couldn’t yet imagine. How would she go on? Without that self-righteous self-pity she’d been tending for so long, where would the energy come from?
Suddenly she sat up against the headboard, straining to see in the dark. Not exactly a sound, but something…. And then she knew: Jesse, somewhere in Boston, at that very moment rising from his hospital bed; Jesse, leaving his flesh forever.
She unwound herself from the comforter, thrust her bare feet to the freezing floor, and slipped across the rugs to the window. Braced against the sill, she craned to see through the blurry glass, searching for a comet trail, a pale streak of light, something, anything, shining over the ghostly Alps. The moment swelled; she held her breath; her heartbeat lapped at her ears. If only he’d come through on his way! If only she might catch a glimpse of him, call after him what she’d needed to say for years and years and years: I love you, I’ve always loved you, I’ll love you forever, goodbye….
She turned and ran to her door, flinging it open and calling out, “George! George!” Then she snapped on the light and stood there, shaken and wide-eyed, her hands clasped over her chest. He stumbled to her room in his bathrobe and slippers with no cane and no teeth, aureoled by a sleepy henhouse smell. “What is it?” he kept asking as he chafed her hands between his. “What’s wrong, Melanie?” She could see she had frightened him, but he was frightening her too in his undressed, unbrushed, untoothed state.
She began to weep for the second time that night. “He died!”
“Your friend in the hospital?”
She managed to nod yes.
“Did someone call?”
She shook her head.
“But then how…? Never mind,” he said, as though calling her to order. His white hair made a wild arc to the left where he’d been sleeping on it. “First, you are freezing. Get back into the bed, and we can talk about it.” She obeyed him, though she refused to lie down, instead sitting upright in the middle of the mattress. Clucking, he tucked the comforter around her, then arranged himself on the edge of the bed. “Now—what?” he said. “It’s time to tell somebody.”
And so, still crying, she told him: her father, her mother, Jesse, all of it, the whole business scraping at her insides as it came out, and knowing that at the end there would be nothing, just a great empty hole with dead people in it, so what was the point? George sat beside her until it was over. Then he held his hand against her hair for a moment. “Didn’t you ever wonder how I recognized you? That day we met in Mozart’s house?”
She wiped her cheeks with the flat of her palms, shaking her head.
“Nick always carried a picture of you, a new one every time I saw him. He showed me one at the Neva that day. But I also saw photos of you at Wolf Trap, at Ravenna, in Paris. You were his muse, Melanie! He adored you. How could you not know it?”
She stared at him, stunned, her hands still at her face.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’ll be back.”
When he returned, he was dressed and carrying his violin. “I want to play something for you,” he said. “Your father’s favorite.”
It had to be three am. The entire gasthaus was sound asleep, and so were the villagers. She gave him a teary, tremulous smile. “You’ll wake everybody,” she said. “You shouldn’t.” For an answer, he drew out the violin, tightened the strings, plucked and listened, his ear close to the bridge. Then he stood and raised the bow. How can he even do it, it’s so cold, she thought—and then he began and of course she recognized it immediately, Bach’s splendid Partita II, with its tremendous fugal chaconne. Not just her father’s favorite: Jesse had loved it too.
After minutes, or perhaps it was hours—she couldn’t tell anything for sure by now—she heard it: a mysterious rattling beneath the flood of music, like faint castanets, perhaps, or water trickling downward through a thousand feet of stone. Jesse’s last breaths? The ragged edges of grief, catching in her throat? Her heart, breaking up like ice on the Neva River? She gazed at George in his fierce concentration, his bow flashing in the lamplight, and suddenly she understood: the rattling was bones. Dry bones, dancing.
She gasped, and clasped her hands together like a small child. Then: amen, amen, and amen, she thought, wishing she could garland them all with ivy and roses, that chorus of singing skulls, those numberless beloveds.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.