Winter Was Hard: A Poem and A Novella in Six Chapters A sequel to The Golden Sequence written by Karen Beaumont
Winter Was Hard: A Poem and A Novella in Six Chapters
A sequel to The Golden Sequence
written by Karen Beaumont
Winter Was Hard -- Poem
2. Music 911
3. A Crack in the Ice
4. A World Full of Brothers
5. Wolves Around the Tree
6. The Places We Are Called
Winter was Hard
The winter you were born was hard.
My cousin was in a car accident, spent two weeks in a coma and
twenty four weeks in a body cast;
I saw my father drag my mother across the floor by her hair and
beat my brother in the living room.
I had pneumonia, spent months sleeping on stacked pillow, so
I could breath and lost weight
because the infected phlegm coated my taste buds.
The winter I met you was in the middle of a string of hard winters.
After years of stress and loss, my body finally rebelled,
making my days a succession of humiliations, constant pain , and
Sometimes the weather makes winter hard.
There is so much relentless snow and ice and cold;
I bury the seed catalogues under old newspapers, keep the
gardening tools in the basement, and when my students
ask me, “How many days ‘til Spring?” I tell them that
I’m not counting.
No matter how hard the winter’s been, there always comes a day
when the sun is higher in the sky and
the wrappings of January seem too warm –
Like hearing a voice on the phone again and again, reminding me
that I am not dead and of
the sweetness of being alive.
The morning my husband was to leave on a three-week tour with his orchestra, I whispered to him in bed that morning that I thought Mathias Stefan needed a brother or sister. My husband, Fritz, had been patient with me during the post delivery healing, and he, like I, was intent on trying to follow the Church’s teaching on family planning. I felt that I had grown into my role as a mother and was ready for another pregnancy and another life to love. Fritz kissed me and said that when he was home in three weeks we could certainly see about this.
I had learned during our courtship how to deal with Fritz’s times away: I would have a project. My project for this tour was to make myself ready for his return to our home and to my body. Oh, did I love enclosing my wonderful husband inside my body. It may seem like the man has all the power, but the woman has equal power because it is to the home of her body that he wants to go. I had regained much of my shape during the time of nursing, but I wanted to prepare myself in other ways, too. Fritz had been so patient, but I knew a part of him was no being attended to. I wanted to be open to him when he returned, open physically and also in my heart and mind.
On more than one occasion, Fritz has described me to others as being a generous person, and one day, I decided to talk to him about this because I don’t think I’m very generous at all. I don’t think poorly of myself, but I am under no delusion that I have great gifts to give the world.
“Your generosity is like this, Ingrid,” he said, forming his hands into the shape of a bowl, “You create a space where others can be.”
I was very honored by this compliment, and I wanted to live up to it in my married life.
The morning before Fritz left, he was in our main room practicing his violin, and young Mathias Stefan crawled in and sat near his father’s feet and began humming what he heard. In the past, we had thought that he might be trying to hum, but, then again, maybe he was just making the sounds babies make. I had never cared for a baby, since I was the baby in our family, so I didn’t know what to expect. The children I taught before I was married were already five years old – completely different creatures than an infant.
Fritz stopped playing, and Mathias Stefan stopped humming. He didn’t look up at his father for more, but, when Fritz began to play again, Mathias Stefan again began humming the quite intricate passages of what he heard his father playing.
Fritz called me into the room. I don’t have much of an ear at all, but I can hear enough to know that our son was humming the lines of the music my husband was practicing.
The morning after Fritz left, my mother arrived. How should I describe my mother? She is a no-nonsense mountain woman who bore nine children and worked side by side her husband on a tiny farm in the mountains of Southern Austria, just across the Italian border. Her beauty is in the surety of her movements. Her world, in many ways, has been narrow, but she has no need for anything more. This self-sufficiency adds to her beauty and her strength.
She made herself at home in the guest room of our apartment and deposited on my counter a loaf of rye bread that she had baked the day before and a round of cheese from the farmer whose sheep grazed on my parents’ land. Then she swooped Mathias Stefan out of his crib and walked around our apartment with him in her arms. After about fifteen minutes of holding him, she came in the kitchen.
“There is something the matter with this child.” My mother has lived a practical life, and tact isn’t practical to her.
“Does he have a fever? I didn’t notice anything.”
“You see him all the time, and you haven’t seen many babies.”
“Mama, what makes you say there is something the matter with Mathias Stefan?”
“He doesn’t look at me. He is not happy that a stranger is paying attention to him, and he is not afraid that a stranger is carrying him around. A dog would have more feelings than this boy.”
It was hard to hear that last sentence, but my mother does not exaggerate. I sat down and waited for her to say more. She continued to walk around with him, showing him windows and the snow falling outside. She showed him the yarn and needles in her bag. It was true, he didn’t seem happy or afraid or even curious at the new things like yarn and needles. Then she began to sing a children’s rhyme. When she finished, he hummed back the melody perfectly.
“Do you sing this to him, too?”
“No, Mama, you know I can barely sing.”
“There’s something the matter with this child. My sister had a boy who was like this…”
“The one who died in the war.” My mother was, like me, the youngest of many children, and she had nieces and nephews who were old enough to be her parent.
“You were too young to know him as a baby.”
“Yes, but my mother told me about him because she says this runs in families. She told me what to watch for.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“None of my children were a problem, so I just forgot about it.” It seems like my mother was being careless, but to her, this math made sense. I was in no position at the moment to argue with her, and, when I thought about it for a few moments, arguing wouldn’t take away the concern.
“Has your doctor said anything?”
“No, but we don’t go that often. Mathias Stefan is healthy; you see that he is
strong and pink cheeked. He doesn’t
“Let’s make an appointment with the doctor. I will come with.”
I was happy to take her up on the offer. I made an appointment for the next day, and then I sent a text to Fritz, “Mama is here. She thinks we should take Mathias Stefan to the doctor. I will write when we get back.”
The doctor Mathias Stefan and I saw was an older man, near retirement. I think I chose him because the younger doctors seemed modern and shrill. I liked the quiet of this man.
He listened to my mother respectfully and then held Mathias Stefan on his lap, placing his stethoscope in his ears and then listening to my son’s heart. Mathias Stefan sat calmly as he always did, neither interested nor frightened.
“Does he try to say words?”
“But does he talk?”
“We thought he was trying to talk, but now we realize he was just trying to hum. He’s become very good at it. He was humming along while my husband practiced this week.”
“I am not an expert in this area. There are conditions that are more prevalent now than when I began my training and practice. I will put you in touch with a group of doctors that can be more helpful.”
I sent a text to Fritz who wrote back, “Do what you need to do, Ingrid. I know that you will make the decisions that will be best for our son. I’ll be home in less than three weeks.”
My almost one-year old son and I found ourselves in a society that neither of us was prepared for. Though my mother, with all her earthiness and strength, was with us, I don’t think anything could counteract the effect of the loud, ugly waiting rooms, the long waits, the poking and prodding and counting of blood samples and lists of characteristics and hideous, impersonal questions being asked of me, about me, about my husband, about our son. Everyone had an opinion; no one had an answer.
My mother was only supposed to stay for two weeks, and I told her that she should go home because my father needed her help, too.
The last test was scheduled February 2, the day before Mathias Stefan’s first birthday and the day before his father was to arrive home. The test was a scan that involved enclosing my son in a tube to take detailed pictures of his brain.
They laid him on the metal and strapped him down. Then we all had to leave the room and watch through a window as the metal slid, with my son attached, into the tube.
“No!” I shrieked. “No! I mean it! Stop! Let me in there!”
They looked at me, not responding.
“No!” This time it was a command. “Stop this! I am taking my son out of here.”
The doctor patted my shoulder, “We can reschedule.”
I pushed his hand off my shoulder. I couldn’t stand his touch.
The door was opened to the room that held my son, lying completely still and strapped to a piece of metal. The attendant began undoing the strap.
“No!” I commanded and moved over to do it myself. Then I put my son’s jacket on him, adjusted my own outer clothes, and left the building.
The sky was gray like is so often is in February.
“Looks like it is going to snow,” I said to my son.
About halfway home, I stopped into a church. It was February 2, Feast of the Presentation, and the choir was rehearsing for a big service that evening. I sat in a pew with Mathias Stefan on my lap. When the choir was done rehearsing, Mathias Stefan began to hum. I thought about this feast day, Mary and Joseph taking their strangely conceived bundle named Jesus to the temple, encountering people who sang songs and made pronouncements when they encountered Jesus. I looked at Mathias Stefan. Should I have noticed something earlier? What difference would it have made? Was it his early delivery that caused this? Again, it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was this life, fruit of my body, the fruit of our love, sitting on my lap, humming complicated phrases that he had just heard from the choir.
When we arrived into the quiet of our apartment, I shut the curtains and turned on one small light. I unbundled Mathias Stefan and took off my own coat.
“Are you hungry?” I asked him. Of course, he didn’t answer, so I brought him a teething cracker and made myself some tea.
I set him on the floor in the middle of our main room and sat down with him. I made myself an empty bowl and looked at my son. I knew he was given to me and I to him. I knew that he needed all of my attention. It was not yet the time for us to add another person to our family, and maybe it never would be. I decided the Church would have to understand that my husband and I needed to love each other in order to love this child.
I sat back and looked at him again.
Then I got out a recording of a performance my husband gave the spring before we married. It was a live recording he did in New York City with an accompanist that his father had known, but the final piece on the concert was for unaccompanied violin. The piece by Biber is nicknamed “The Guardian Angel”. For the cover of the recording, Fritz received permission to reproduce an illustration from the manuscript of the score that is held in a museum in our country. In the picture, the angel is leading a child by the hand.
I put on the recording, and Mathias Stefan hummed with the music.
“Mathias Stefan, you are going to have to guide me. Teach me how to be your mother. ”
2. Music 911
“Recording library. Dewey Clark speaking.”
“Henrietta Clark from the 42nd Street Library. I have often been asked if we are related.”
“I have also been asked. But we are not. How can I help you?”
“I believe that you do not lend recordings, but I am wondering if exceptions are made for employees.”
“In a way. I have a neighbor who is, for the most part, homebound. She works at home and listens to the radio and books on tape while she works, but she would like to listen to some music.”
“I may be able to work something out, but we have a large collection. What would you be looking for?”
“I know quite a bit of orchestral music, and she was
a ballet dancer….”
“In her 60’s. Why?”
“Why is she homebound?”
“I think the years of dancing took a hard toll on
“What is her personality like? What are her interests?”
“She is Scandanavian – not very talkative. She likes icons and…”
“I have two recordings of two different liturgical works by Rachmoninov. They are long but varied. When could you pick them up?”
Dewey Clark left work promptly at 5:15 that day, leaving a routing envelope at the front counter for Miss Henrietta Clark – no relation, he assured the desk person – and took the train uptown where he lived with his wife, Greta.
“Hello, Mr. Clark?”
“This is he.”
“Henrietta Clark, here. Thank you for the suggestion. It was a perfect fit. Miss Larsen would like to know if you are psychic.”
“That is good for a chuckle. My wife would say that I am not.”
“Do you and your wife live in the city?”
“Yes, near Columbia.”
“So do I! Miss Larsen is in my building. We’re on 113th Street.”
“Greta and I are up a little further, just behind Union Seminary. Would Miss Larsen like any more recordings?”
“I am sure she would.”
“I think something lighter would be good to follow up with that. I have a recording of a Schubert Quintet that is sure to add tinsel to the room. If she is in our neighborhood, I would be glad to drop them off myself.”
“Is that against policy?”
“I often take things home to study. I like to be able to recommend recordings with the confidence of personal knowledge.”
“Thank you, Mr. Clark.”
Dewey Clark left work that day promptly at 5:00 that day, having shaved 15 minutes off his lunch hour. This would allow him to drop off the recordings on time and be home when Greta was expecting him.
Dewey Clark was thirty-three years old. He was born and raised in Boston. His twin brother died of appendicitis when they were two years old, and his parents, traumatized by the death, never had any more children. His father was an English teacher at a private high school, and his mother taught piano lessons. A culture of literature and music pervaded the household and kept it functional through the years of grief. Dewey Clark pursued an undergraduate degree in music history and a double masters degree in music history and library science. In graduate school, he met Greta Stein, a cellist, and they married when Dewey was twenty-eight. Dewey was hired by the library system in New York City as a music librarian, and Greta, being talented and resourceful, carved out a career as a freelancer.
He got off the train at 110th Street and walked up to 113th, turning West off of Broadway. He was going to deliver two recordings to the neighbor of Henrietta Clark. The woman’s name was Kirsten Larsen. Since Ms. Clark had mentioned that Miss Larsen had been a ballet dancer, he did some research. In truth, she had been a ballet star and had been married to one of the most influential men in the ballet world during that time. Her husband was not only known for his prowess as a dancer and choreographer but also as man who made many connections with wealthy patrons, people in power, and other movers in the art world. The marriage and her career seemed, from his estimates, to have been over for a little more than twenty-five years.
The doorman sent him up the elevator, and Miss Larsen was waiting in the hallway for him.
He had an image of what a sixty-something woman would look like, and he was taken aback by the discrepancy. In the hallway was a very short, quite slight, striking woman dressed in a flowing silk tunic – black – that went to her knees and black stockings. The tunic was an unusual shape and covered with gold embroidery. Atop this was a face with high cheekbones, slanted blue eyes, and gray hair that was wrapped in braids around her head.
“So you are the psychic music angel.”
“Miss Larsen. Let me introduce myself: Dewey Clark.”
“Please to meet you, Mr. Clark. Would you like to come in for a minute?”
He checked his watch. He could stay for seven to ten minutes and still be home on time.
The apartment was simply furnished, almost sparse, and quiet. There was one wall that had a small assortment of icons that he inspected.
“Are they originals?”
“No, but I don’t think they need to be, do you?” Before he could answer, she added, “Do you attend a church?”
“I was raised in a HighChurch family in Boston. We attended Church of the Advent, but my wife doesn’t care for church. So, no, the answer is, I do not.”
Kirsten Larsen looked at the icons and then at him. “Where would you attend?”
“I suppose the Cathedral since I am close.”
“I am a member of the Cathedral and so is Henrietta Clark.” They both looked back at the icons for a moment.
“Please sit down.”
He checked his watch, “For five more minutes. Miss Larsen, this may be forward, but I must ask you about your tunic. It is so unusual. Did you get that while traveling?”
She laughed, “No. My, I haven’t traveled for almost as long as you’ve been alive! I made it. I have been doing work mending vestments for churches, and, when I don’t have any projects, I design and sew outfits for myself.”
“It is lovely and quite striking on you.”
“Thank you. What did you bring me to listen to?”
“A Schubert Quintet – a little break from all of
that thick Russian liturgical music – and something presumptuous.”
“Well, I did some research. I’m sorry, but I was so curious. I learned about your earlier work and of your Norwegian heritage, so I brought a recording of some very old Norwegian folk songs, some a capella, and some simply accompanied with Norwegian fiddle.”
“How thoughtful of you!”
“Were you ever in Norway?”
“No. Denmark, but not Norway. So, your thoughtfulness will get me partway
Dewey Clark looked at his watch. He had exceeded his time, but if he ran, he could make it home.
“Miss Larsen, it has been a pleasure. I really must go.”
Before she could get up out of her chair, he was gone.
“What have you brought today?”
“Well, you said you had visited Denmark, so I thought of Nielsen. I love his Helios Overture. Along with it, I brought Brahms Tragic Overture and Wagner’s Rienzi Overture – a study in overtures.”
Kirsten laughed, “And a bit more literary than you realize. I heard the Nielsen last February…”
“Were you caught in that explosion?”
“Yes. In fact, I was with Henrietta and her young man, Nic. Do you know him?”
“No. Miss Clark has a boyfriend?”
“Of sorts, I think. Well, life is complicated, you know. So, yes, I heard the Nielsen and then was part of the explosion. Do you have time to come in?”
“Yes, a little more than usual. Greta is on tour.”
“Greta must be your wife. Is she a musician?”
“Yes, a cellist. She freelances.”
“She has a string quartet, and they are in Japan for two
weeks. You used to tour quite a bit,
didn’t you…I’m sorry, maybe…”
“Mr. Clark, if you don’t mind the stories of an old ballet dancer…”
“Well, I am certainly old enough to be your mother…”
“I suppose. My mother is fifty-nine.”
“Then I am older than your mother. Where do your parents live?”
“Boston, in the same home I grew up in.”
“I had a twin brother who died when we were two.”
“I’m sorry. What was his name?”
They sat silently. The sun was setting; new shadows appeared on the walls.”
“Mr. Clark, I should offer you something. Tea?”
“Yes. Please call me Dewey.”
She looked at him as she pushed herself up off the chair, “Dewey. I hope you will address me as Kirsten.”
“Do you need help?”
“Just keep me company in the kitchen. My mother used to say that, and so I would pull up a stool next to the counter while she cooked and baked.”
“Where did you grow up?”
“In a small town in Western Wisconsin. All Norwegians. Can you imagine?”
“I don’t know anyone of Scandanavian descent. My Boston upbringing was populated with WASPS, and the Irish and Italians.”
“Greta sounds like a Scandanavian name.”
“German. Her mother was the daughter of a German Lutheran Pastor, and her father – Barry Stein – was Jewish.”
“Is that why she isn’t religious – too mixed up of an upbringing?”
“Something like that.”
“The tea is done. I have some biscotti from the Italian grocery on Broadway.”
“Can I carry something?”
“Why don’t you take the tea tray.”
They sat across from each other, and Kirsten poured tea.
“Well, we have asked each other questions and given no answers,” she said, laughing, “Maybe you’ll have to bring some more music tomorrow, if you have time.”
“I could. Like I said, Greta will be on tour for two weeks.”
“You brought three pieces – all overtures. Which should I start with?”
“Would it bother you to hear the Helios given that you heard it before a traumatic event?”
“It was traumatic but also beautiful. Somewhat of a long story. Let’s say that it brought about a beautiful surprise.”
“Then listen in this order: Helios, Wagner, Brahms.”
“The Wagner has a surprise, and the Brahms will sum it all up.”
“I feel like you are writing a prescription. What will you bring tomorrow?”
“What is your mood?”
“Why is that a mood?”
“I am Norwegian; I was a dancer, and I’ve been homebound for over twenty-five years. None of these states of being are chatty.”
“Now? Now I have made a friend.”
Dewey looked up from his teacup at this tiny woman with elfish, slanted blue eyes, exotic gray braids wrapped around her head, and a tiny figure swathed in yet another embroidered tunic, and smiled.
“Kirsten? Dewey Clark here.”
“Yes, Dewey. How nice to hear your voice.”
“A new recording came in today that I’d like to bring over.”
“That would be wonderful. I haven’t finished the ones you brought…”
“Oh, of course not.
I think this recording is exciting, though, and I have the time…”
“After work? Would you like a bite to eat as well?”
“I could pick something up on the way. There is a bread bakery near 105th that has some good rolls…”
“And I have cheese and dates. Should I have a pot of tea ready?”
“So,” she said as they settled themselves down with a platter of snacks and a teapot in front of them, “What did you bring?”
“Oh? May I see?”
Handing it over to her, he continued, “The recording contains two of his small a capella works – the Ave Maria and Pater Noster – but also Petrushka and Les Noces. It is a compilation/repressing of some very early recordings of his…”
“Yes. My husband had quite a bit of contact with this conductor…”
“In my research I saw that he had many connections to the movers and shakers of that time. Do I assume that you had contact with these people as well?”
“By virtue of proximity.”
“Yes, where he was, I was, so I met them. They had no interest in me except maybe as some sort of decoration.”
“You don’t make it sound very attractive.”
“It isn’t. On the surface it is; in the newspaper it is, but it doesn’t take long for someone to see that it is all a game. It is about power and appearances. It has little to do with art, and it has no soul. In the end, it became as unattractive for me to watch his pursuit of power and prestige as it would have been to see him inebriated in public.”
“What did you make of it?”
“Make of it?”
“Well, why do you think he did it or, for that matter, anyone?”
Kirsten stared at her teacup. “I asked myself that for a long time, even for a long time after I was married. Any pursuit like that – power and control – is like any other compulsive pursuit: it keeps people from themselves. Why would someone not want to be separated from their self, their core? It is crazy when you step back from it, right? Your self is all you have. It is what God gave you to care for and to offer the world. I think there are a number of reasons why someone would do this, but, in the end, none of them justify the separation.”
“Do you think you were separated from your self?”
“It didn’t occur to me until much later that I even had a self.”
“Well, what did you bring today?”
“I had one of my Music 911 calls today, and I thought of you.”
“People often call wanting to know what music would be good for a particular life event, if you will.”
“They call more often for difficult situations than happy occasions.”
“Can you tell me today’s event?”
“A family had just discovered that their adopted daughter has a congenital disease for which there is no treatment.”
“What did you prescribe?”
“There is an American composer who has written some works that are very repetitive, and, as a musician might say, a lot of white keys – not chromatic. You’d think this would sound too happy, but there is something sad about the way it ambles. Anyway, that’s what I suggested, and I brought you a copy.”
“I want to learn, and I think the mood of this is something I will understand. What was the hardest call you ever had?”
“They are all hard.”
“Pain is pain. There was one recently that made an impression on me. A man called. He had been out drinking one evening and was late to pick up his wife. While she waited for him, she was assaulted badly. His guilt was palpable, even over the telephone.”
“What did you suggest?”
“The adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony – heartfelt but not grim.”
“You have a gift of understanding music and people. What did your parents listen to when your brother died?”
“Well, I was two years old like he was. My mother played Bach and Brahms on the piano most of the time that she wasn’t teaching.”
“He liked to whistle hymns from church.”
“Dewey, I had an idea.”
“I go to daily mass at the Cathedral in the morning. Since you do not work on Saturdays, would you like to join me?”
“Greta is still on tour, so I am free. What time?”
“The mass is at 8:30. I could meet you there.”
“I’ll come here at 8:10, and we can walk over together.”
“Kirsten,” the voice said on the telephone, “This is Henrietta Clark from upstairs. Dewey Clark asked me if I could pick up the recordings he lent you. He needs them back in the library and can’t come himself.”
“Kirsten, Dewey Clark here.”
“Dewey, thank you for calling. It has been over two weeks, and I wondered if I should call you. Are you okay?”
“Oh, yes, just busy.”
“Work is busier at the library? Is there a reason?”
“I had to take some days off to help Greta,
and that put me behind.”
”Is she okay?”
“Oh, yes, just fine. I have some recordings that I’d like to drop off on the way home tonight, if you are interested.”
“That would be very nice. I will look forward to it.”
Kirsten met him at the door, and he handed her an envelope.
“I don’t have time to come in or even to discuss what I brought, but I hope you like it.”
Before she could reply, he was gone.
“Kirsten, Nic here.”
“Oh, Nic, it is always good to hear your voice on the phone. Why are you calling?”
“Henrietta reminded me that the Feast of the Annunciation is on Wednesday. They are having a special Mass at St. Thomas during the lunch hour. If you want to come, I’ll be happy to escort you.”
“Nic, I would love to. Thank you for thinking of me. Will Henrietta be there, too?”
“Yes, saving us places as usual.”
“Tell her to save one more. I think we should invite that music librarian Henrietta introduced me to.”
“Dewey Clark here.”
“Dewey, this is Kirsten Larsen. I am sorry to bother you at work, but I had an idea?”
“Henrietta and Nic and I are attending the noon hour Mass at St. Thomas on March 25…”
“The Feast of the Annunciation.”
“Yes. Would you like to join us?”
“Over lunch hour? Yes, I think that will work out just fine.”
“Henrietta has some in with the rector there and saves us the same place each time – third pew from the front on the left.”
“I’ll look for you.”
They all arrived about fifteen minutes before the service began. Nic and Dewey were introduced. Nic and Henrietta sat next to each other. Kirsten was next to Henrietta, and Dewey sat on the end of the pew, by the center aisle. There were some extra chairs and stands near the choir stalls. Henrietta leaned over and told Kirsten and Dewey that there were some guest instrumentalists joining the choir for an anthem during communion.
As the choir members were taking their places at the communion rail to receive the sacrament, the ushers began bidding the parishioners in the front rows to form a line for their turn. Dewey helped Kirsten to stand and offered his arm as they walked up the three steps to the altar area. At the same time, the choir members were taking their places, and the guest musicians were situating themselves in their chairs, adjusting their stands.
Kirsten saw Dewey look over at the musicians and felt his arm go slack. She looked over at the musicians and saw a beautiful woman sitting with her cello, looking at Dewey. Kirsten looked out of the corner of her eye back at Dewey who was looking straight ahead.
After they received communion and found their pew, Dewey said he had to leave.
A week later, the doorman called up to Kirsten, “Your friend Mr. Clark is here. He said he had not called ahead, but he would like to know if you will see him.”
“Please send him up.”
Kirsten waited at her door as usual. Dewey appeared. He had no package of disks in his hand. Kirsten looked up at him.
“Dewey, come in. Please sit down,” she said, motioning to the couch, “Can I get you something?”
He declined by shaking his head. Kirsten looked at him again.
“Dewey, tell me how you are.”
He declined again by shaking his head.
“We chat so much, so I wonder why you are not talking today.”
He parted his lips slightly to reveal that his three of top teeth were missing.
Kirsten looked at him, “How can I help?”
Dewey looked down at his hands that were folded together on his lap. Kirsten got up and went to a shelf that held her limited collection of recordings.
“I met a harpsichordist through Nic and Henrietta. She sent me this recording that she made of selections from the Well-Tempered Clavier played on an old Austrian harpsichord. I had never heard these pieces on harpsichord -- something about the lack of dynamics that I have a yen for now and then. Anna, the soloist, told me that Bach wrote these on his own time, that is, not for work. She said she sensed he wrote them as retreat -- a tidied up universe.”
Kirsten put on the recording, the thin sounds of the harpsichord mirroring the thin light of dusk in a city apartment.
She sat down next to Dewey and took his hand and kissed it, “We can just sit here for awhile and listen.”
Dewey leaned back on the couch with his eyes shut, his hand still in Kirsten’s, as the daylight ebbed.
3. A Crack in the Ice
I start every day in the gym with my personal trainer. He’s a gorgeous young thing, but I think he’s gay. It’s been awhile. He keeps me looking good for when the right opportunity arises. My last one was almost as young, about fifteen years younger than I am. Lasted about seven months. He was from Norway and had to get back home to the farm. I couldn’t believe he’d bow to that sort of family pressure. But today is Friday, so I’m off to the spa right after this: we start with a massage and a facial, then the hair, and while I’m waiting for the dye to work its magic, I have my feet and hands done. Every four weeks I get my brows and chin and upper lip waxed. I fast on Fridays, too. Keeps my appetite in control.
While my feet are being done, I check my texts – can’t do it during a massage or when my nails are being painted. And I like to watch when they work on my hair. These young girls get sloppy when they think I’m too old for this to matter.
“Liebe Mutti…” begins the first text. God help me! That’s not what I really think – I mean, the God part – but dealing with this girl is a nightmare. This girl is my daughter-in-law. What did my son think? Did he think that if he married someone opposite of his mother that the marriage would last? She is my opposite, too. She’s from the south in the mountains, dark as an Italian and Catholic as one, too. She hasn’t been pregnant since that first one was born (more on him in a minute). Do they even do it? She is curvy and doesn’t seem to mind, puts cream in her coffee and butter on her toast. She wears dresses all the time and a scarf on her head when she is at home. She attends church every Sunday, every Holy Day of Obligation. She calls me “Mutti”. “I’m not your ‘Mutti’,” I want to scream. She has no ear for music, no culture – her parents are country people in the worst possible way. Her mother is stout and wears her hair in a net, has stubble on her chin and a shadow on her upper lip. The father (my “poppi” she says – ugh!) wears suspenders and pants that are rolled up at the bottom. They attend Mass every day when they are in the city “because it is so hard to get to the church” where they live. When they can’t get to Mass, they say the Rosary and the Angelus. Oh, yes, the child, my grandson. I don’t tell people I’m a grandmother, and I wouldn’t admit being related to that boy anyway. People used to be honest. They’d call him an “idiot savant”. Now there are all sorts of names, but this girl won’t even bow to that. No, he is her “special gift”.
The text continues, “I hope you will consider coming with us to the Christmas Eve Mass tonight. My Mamma and Poppi are here, too. We are having coffee and cake before. It isn’t far to the church. We’ll leave to walk there about ½ hour before the service. Must say goodbye. Fritz says that Anna is on the phone. Ingrid.” “Anna is on the phone…” Well, if this text hasn’t unpleasant enough, that dreadful American has to pop up in the scene again. Where should I even start with this one?
Starting with this one brings up the whole sloppy mess, so I might as well start from the beginning. The beginning for now will be when I was eighteen years old and attending the University. I came from a certain class in society. I was expected to marry well, and, until that happened, I had to do whatever it took to make myself marketable (crass as this sounds, that’s what we do). And, sure enough, I caught the eye of a young musician from a family of known and respected musicians. The story was progressing as it was supposed to. My parents approved; I found him tolerable. What did I know about living day to day when I was eighteen?
When I was just twenty, Stefan Haselbock and I married. Yes, he was a good man, so good I wanted to screech. Yes, he was a tender and considerate lover -- when he was home. But he was in the orchestra – a violinist who eventually became the concertmaster – and they toured, gone sometimes for a month at a time. This was before email and texts and cell phones. What was I supposed to do? Eventually I had Fritz, and for a while the care of an infant and toddler took up my time and attention. But then he went to school and also began to play the violin. When he wasn’t in school, he was practicing. Loneliness can eat you alive; let me tell you. Stefan suggested we have more children, but what would that solve? They’d just go away, too. We were stuck in something that could not be changed. Being in that orchestra was much more than Stefan’s job; it was a calling. He thought it should be my calling, too, but I couldn’t bring myself to make the sacrifice. The whole problem was incomprehensible to him. He looked at me once and said, “What else do you want from life?” I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know; I just knew I was lonely and empty.
Then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had a surgery that rendered him impotent. I screamed hideous things and begged for the marriage to be ended. Fritz heard; I know that. Stefan didn’t put up a fight, which angered me more.
This is all a long way of explaining who Anna is. Anna is an American – some sort of keyboard player – who Stefan met when they were on tour in the States. Well, wasn’t she the thing for him! She’s a musician, lives in a foreign country – far away from the responsibilities of being a husband. I probably never would have met her except that the cancer finally took Stefan’s life, and she became a link for Fritz to his father. I suppose I should be that link except that I asked to be excused from the picture. She came to Fritz’s wedding. Lovely, trim woman who was so poised and kind I wanted to spit. From her behavior at the service, she also appeared to be religious, which added to my disdain.
Well, I should figure out how to respond to Ingrid’s text, shouldn’t I? Why would I go? The Mass does nothing for me. The hackneyed carols irritate me. The priest is only going to preach things that revolt me. Should I go to sit with my grandson who can still not speak even though he will be singing along with everything he hears? I have no way of relating to Ingrid’s parents. Ingrid’s attempts to be kind to me annoy me, too, because I know she is doing it out of duty.
From my son, all I feel is his disappointment and recrimination. And he walks just like his father. I get a chill through my middle every time I see him walking toward me. It’s like seeing a ghost.
“Ingrid – will try to make it. Don’t know exactly when. Don’t wait for me. Monika.”
Our winters are unpredictable, and this winter has been particularly hard. I just spent all this time and money on my hair, and I can’t decide whether to be freezing with my style blown apart or smash it all down with a hat to stay warm. Standing outside the spa, I see plenty of young women have chosen to wear a hats, so I do the same. When I get home, I can find one that will look good enough to wear while I’m out. No one will mind if I wear it in church.
I guess I’m deciding to go. It’s Christmas, right? I’m not sure why that really makes any difference, but it’s what other people say. I’ll go to Fritz and Ingrid’s apartment just late enough to miss the cake and coffee and boring conversation, having to act interested in that strange child and Ingrid’s bumpkin parents, having to miss Ingrid’s tutored kindness and Fritz’s barely veiled anger. I’ll dress modestly and warmly. Church is no place to look for young men, anyway. As for the church part, I don’t know. I’m not going to think about it yet. The last time I was in a church was for Fritz’s wedding. How long ago was that? Two years? Not quite. And the last time before that was Stefan’s funeral.
I forgot to leave a light on, and my apartment is so dark. It seems cold in here, too. Maybe it is just too windy for the building to hold the heat. What time is it? There’s time enough to change, and it will only take me fifteen minutes to walk there. I wonder if I should call first or maybe send a text. Maybe they tried to call me while I was coming home. No, no message from them. No message from anyone. What should I wear? Maybe this pant suit will be good – the pin stripes make it modern, but it is dark enough not to stand out. I’m not sure it matters; the church will be packed. There’ll be no room to take off my coat. The church was nearly packed for Stefan’s funeral. I think the whole orchestra was there along with their families and students. I didn’t want to go. No one respected me for ending the marriage, that’s for sure. At best, they avoided me. Those who were honest glared at me and then turned away. I still can’t answer the question of why I went to the funeral. No, that’s not true. I can answer, but not now.
I should pick a hat. I have this black fur hat that Stefan brought back from a tour to Russia. It fits snugly; it won’t blow off. I’ve never worn it. He wanted me to model it for him, said it would look good with my blond hair billowing out from the rim, but I refused. I didn’t want anything to do with those tours, and this gift was a result of a tour. He didn’t press the point which made me angrier. He politely left the room and never brought it up again.
I send Ingrid a text saying that I’ll walk towards the church and meet up with them in the front. For all her backwards ways, she is vigilant about checking and responding to texts.
It is windy – good I wore this hat – and the wet snow that fell earlier in the day is turning to ice. The wind blows hard enough to throw me a little off-balance, and all this shivering is making the end of my Friday fast challenging. I’m hungry and a little light headed. Well, I’m almost there. How am I going to pick them out of all these people I see walking to the entrance of the church? Stefan died in the winter, just after the New Year, and the funeral was at night. I didn’t want to arrive too early, so I waited until the very last moment to arrive. There was a crowd entering the church then, too. I can’t remember what the weather was like. It was winter, but I can’t remember anything distinctive. I can’t remember anything about it, really. What was the music? Was there a sermon
I see them, Ingrid’s parents and Ingrid and Fritz and their son – my grandson. I don’t tell anyone I have a grandson. I don’t tell anyone new that I even have a son or that I was married. I’m old enough for people to know I did something with the first half – or more? – of my life, and I’m always relieved when they don’t ask. The thing is, I don’t think of Fritz as my son; I think of him as Stefan’s son. He looks so much like Stefan, and he is good like Stefan was.
I wonder if maybe I should have broken my regular Friday fast with a little something. I’m so cold and shaky, and this isn’t helping me cope with all this ice and wind. I can see them, but if I shout, they probably won’t hear me. The crowds and the bells and the wind are too much for me to compete with. Dare I run feeling the way I feel? Again, the wind and ice have an upper hand. I’ll try waiving and calling out.
I hold up my hand as high as I can, waiving back and forth, “Fritz! Ingrid! I’m over here! Fritz!”
I don’t know if they see me, so I’m going to keep doing this and try to walk a little faster.
My foot is caught on something – a crack in the sidewalk I couldn’t see because of the snow. Oh, God, I’m falling. Maybe I can catch myself.
“Mutti, mutti!” Someone is shaking my shoulder. I’m really cold and lying on my back. Are my eyes frozen shut? My head hurts, and my mouth has the metal, salty taste of blood. I try to open my eyes again. It is dark, and what I can see is spinning around, spinning and spinning, gives me a stomachache. I’m so hungry.
I open my eyes again and try to focus. There he is, that beautiful man. He has so much soul and feeling and goodness. Every cell of this man is good. How could I have let him go? How could I have been so cruel? The things I said to him were horrible and base.
“Stefan,” I say, tears filling my eyes as I reach out my hand. “Stefan,” I say again, the name forming in my blood crusted lips and taking over my whole body with the wonder of his name.
I feel a hand on my forehead, and I close my eyes, lying back beneath the care and love of that skillful hand.
“Mutti, it is me, Fritz. You have had a terrible fall.”
Ingrid chimes in, “Mutti, we are getting help. Are you cold? Poppi is going to put his coat over you.”
My eyes focus, and I know where I am. I’m lying on the sidewalk near the church. Fritz and Ingrid and their son, Mathias Stefan, are on one side, and Ingrid’s parents are on the other. Her father puts his coat on me. It smells of straw. When have I smelled straw? Oh, yes, at Christmas when I was a child. What was it? The year I was twelve, I played Mary in the church school Christmas program. There was straw in the manager. Fritz is holding my hand. The child is in Ingrid’s arms. The bells of the church begin to play a Christmas tune. Mathias Stefan points towards the bell tower.
“Yes, Mathias Stefan?” his mother says. Then the child looked at each one of our group and begins to sing along.
4. A World Full of Brothers
“I’m looking for something gallant but not the usual.”
“Have you heard Michael Haydn’s keyboard works?”
“Yes, Joseph’s brother.”
”I didn’t know he had a brother.”
Dewey Clark handed the library patron a recording of Michael Haydn’s keyboard works and went back to his desk. It was almost 3:00 in the afternoon. He had to leave work by 4:00 to make it to the dentist by 4:30 to have some adjustments made to some recent work. After that, he was supposed to view an apartment. He looked out the window. Everyone on the sidewalk below seemed to be hunched over and holding on to their hats. He called Nic.
“Nic, Dewey Clark here.”
“Hey, I was just thinking about you. I’ve got the van to deliver some pipes. Can I take you to either of your appointments?”
Dewey had been staying with Nic for the last few weeks while he looked for a place to live.
“I have to be to the dentist by 4:30 and have an appointment to look at an apartment at 5:30.”
“I got a lot of work done today. I’ll pick you up at 4:00 and take you to both.”
“Don’t you have anything to do?”
“I usually go to evensong with Henrietta on Tuesdays, but she’ll understand. I’ll try to be in front of the library in the red utility van.”
Dewey helped a few more patrons and went back to his desk to check email and look at his calendar for the next few days. It was hard to believe that it was already April. The winter had been long and fierce; this year spring was only a date on the calendar. There had been a snow storm on March 31st, and the temperature had often hovered around freezing in the early part of April. Maybe by Easter it would be warmer. “When was Easter this year?” he thought, flipping through his calendar. “Oh, yes, my birthday” - April 17. That was more than two weeks away, and there was plenty else to deal with.
Nic was always on time. Dewey climbed into the white utility van, full of organ pipes and different sized boxes.
“Hey there, Bro! Got some pipes in from Germany today for an organ I’m working on downtown. Which way are we driving?” Nic was a chatty one, and Dewey still had to adjust to all the verbiage and Nic’s easy slang.
“…up in Henrietta’s neighborhood, Amsterdam, near 113th. I’m sorry you had to miss evensong with Henrietta.”
“She understands. Hey, do you have plans for Easter? We’re going to St. Thomas, and then back to Henrietta’s building. Kirsten is going to make lunch. She asked if you’d be available.”
don’t know, well…”
“Do you have plans?”
“I haven’t seen Kirsten…” He couldn’t finish. Nic, for all his loquaciousness, knew when to stop and wait.
Nic’s friend Henrietta introduced Dewey to Kirsten Larsen, an older woman in her building who was somewhat homebound and wanted to listen to more music. Kirsten and Dewey became friends quickly, and he enjoyed her. She had impish looks that belied the gravity the challenges in her life had given her. It was nice having a friend. His wife Greta, a classically trained cellist, had an erratic schedule as a free-lancer and was often on tour. Kirsten didn’t seem to mind the inconsistency of his availability, but Greta… He looked out the van window. There had not been room in his marriage for other friendships. He rethought that. The complete thought was this: there hadn’t been room in his marriage for other friendships because there was not room for him.
“Do you have plans for Easter,Dewey?” Nic asked again as the stop light turned green.
“I’ll just be calling my parents.”
“Do you always call them on Easter?”
“No. This year Easter is on April 17 which is also my birthday.”
“…a birthday on Easter! Are you the oldest?”
“I don’t have any siblings. I had a twin brother, Arnold, who died when we were two.”
“I’m sorry. Were you identical or fraternal twins?”
“I’ve heard identical twins can feel almost like one person. Maybe you were too young when he died to experience that.”
“No, we did experience that.”
“Have you missed him over the years?”
Dewey nodded in ascent. The traffic was moving along; they were almost at the dentist’s office.
This was his third trip to the dentist in a month. The dentist was an Asian immigrant from a large family, and, from what Dewey could tell, the whole staff was related.
“Mr. Clark is here!” exclaimed the young man at the desk. Another young man came to take his coat and another, dressed in scrubs, lead him to the dental chair.
“Are there any girls in your family?”
“My mother!” he said, laughing, “It is considered good luck to have a son; my mother had seven!”
The oldest brother was the dentist.
“How is the partial feeling?”
“Okay. I’m not sure how good it is supposed to feel.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No, it just doesn’t feel real.”
“It isn’t, but in time it will feel familiar. You never told me how this happened. I know we had a tough winter. Did you slip on the ice?”
Dewey had not told anyone how it happened. He went to see Kirsten the day after, but she was wise enough not to pry. Nic had taken him to each dentist appointment, but he didn’t ask. Henrietta didn’t say anything, either, but she looked at him in a way that told him that she saw and that she knew. The next time they saw each other, Nic handed him a large jar.
“Henrietta said you might like some of her squash soup. She purees it. She told me to tell you that.”
By then he was living with Nic while he looked for his own apartment. The first night, Nic got him set up on the couch and showed him around the kitchen.
“If you ever want to talk about it,” Nic offered, “I can listen.”
Dewey took a long time trying to form an answer, but Nic stepped in.
“Well, you know, tonight I’m looking through some pictures of portative organs built in England in the 17th century. Want to join me?”
They sat at Nic’s kitchen table, drinking warmed cider, looking at pictures of old organs. Dewey looked, and Nic provided non-stop commentary.
Dewey told Nic he would find a place within a month. Nic said he could take as long as he needed. The company was nice. Dewey nodded in agreement. He also enjoyed the company, but he didn’t want to impose. Nic lived on the edge of Harlem, about twenty blocks from where Henrietta lived on 113th. Dewey liked Henrietta’s neighborhood and was hoping to find something in that area. Kirsten and Nic and Henrietta had become somewhat of a family to him, and Greta had moved closer to Mid-Town.
“There was an accident at home,” he told the dentist. The dentist looked at him and nodded.
Nic was waiting outside in the white van.
“The white van helps me to park in loading zones!” Nic said, laughing, as Dewey climbed into the van, “and all I have to do is point at those pipes to scare people off,” he said, laughing some more, “Where’s the apartment?”
“Just two blocks south of Henrietta’s, closer to Riverside.”
“Can you swing that on a librarian’s salary?”
“Greta comes from some money.”
“That’s okay. It’s going to come up.”
They were at a stop light.
“Nic, were you ever married?” It wasn’t usual Dewey to ask personal questions of anybody, but he thought he’d see what it was like.
“Almost. It’s a long story and not pretty.”
“You and Henrietta?”
“No. Not because we don’t love each other. Can’t you tell we do?”
“And not because there’s anyone else. I think we’ve found what works. Got to be willing to be odd to get through this life, that’s what I think. Ever thought about that?”
The apartment faced RiversidePark and had windows to the East. Nic followed Dewey and the agent closely, once in awhile getting out some measuring tape or inspecting an electrical outlet. Nic’s phone rang, and he left the room to answer. By the time he had returned, Dewey was signing the papers and was ready to leave.
“This is the one.”
“How many have you looked at?”
“One. Who was on the phone?”
“Henrietta. She fosters kittens and sick cats. Did you know that?”
“Anyway, she just got a call that there are some kittens who lost their mother. I’m going to pick them up and take them to her. Want to come along?”
“Sure, but I’m a little hungry.”
“Oh, well, I guess I am, too. There’s a bagel place on the corner by Henrietta’s. How ‘bout that? Just to go?”
Nic deftly maneuvered the van through the after work traffic, dropping Dewey off to fetch some food.
“Can you get me some coffee, too?” he yelled out the window.
“No! Day’s not over yet!”
Back in the van, Nic drove with one hand, eating with the other, and talking between bites.
“You need some shelves in that place. I’ll build you some.”
“Well, that’s nice, but don’t you have work to do?”
“Holy Week is coming up. All organ building comes to a halt, so I’ll have extra time. Hey, you haven’t said if you’re come to Kirsten’s on Easter.”
“Sure. What time?”
“I don’t know. Just come to church with us in the morning, and we’ll figure out the rest then.”
The cat shelter was in an old store front with fixtures that hadn’t been updated since the 1950’s. They knew Nic and handed him a large crate containing two kittens.
“Tabbies. Did you know that?”
“My mother liked cats, so, yes, I did know that. She was fond of American Short Hairs.”
“Here, you hold them. I’ve got to drive.”
Once again, they were flying through the city, cruising southward towards Henrietta’s apartment. Dewey peered inside the crate. The two kittens were curled in a ball.
“I can’t even tell where one begins and the other ends.”
Dewey scheduled a week of vacation beginning April 11, the day after Palm Sunday, in order to move into his new place and finish up his dental work. Plus, it was Holy Week. He had not attended the liturgies of Holy Week since he married Greta, so he would use the time for this as well. The movers came on Monday, bringing his belongings from storage, and some furniture he ordered arrived the same day. On Tuesday, he began unpacking while Nic began building shelves for his books, recordings, and stereo equipment. For part of the time, their work was accompanied by music that Dewey chosen for the occasion: Beethoven’s First Symphony and some of Haydn’s later symphonies.
“I thought you’d pick something like the Rite of Spring,” Nic said, laughing.
“I don’t have the energy for political statements, that’s why I picked these.”
“Because they lack political commentary?”
“Yes, and because they have the energy I need.”
They didn’t listen to music when they were working in the same room. Nic could and did talk on and on which didn’t bother Dewey. The company was nice, and Nic was always interesting.
“Hey, I’ve got a question.”
“Why do you call your parents on your birthday? Shouldn’t they be calling you?”
“I never really thought of it.”
“Are they still in Boston?”
“That’s not very far from here, is it?”
“You’ve never been?”
“Not a long train ride. I would take it sometimes when Greta was going to be on tour.”
Nic was silent as he wrestled with the last of the shelving into place.
Dewey had a dental appointment on Tuesday which he walked to from his new apartment. It was starting to warm up. He made a note to take a walk in RiversidePark after the dentist to see if the daffodils were blooming.
“I think this is the last time I’ll need to see you until your regular check-up. How is it feeling?”
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“How do you think it looks?”
“I haven’t checked.”
The dentist held up a mirror. Dewey was supposed to look at his teeth which he didn’t want to do because looking at them made him remember why they had to be replaced in the first place, and he could only take in so much of that memory at a time. He used the opportunity to look at himself, not to look at himself as Dewey but to look at himself to think about what Arnold might have looked like.
“You usually come after work. Are you off this week?” one of the brothers in the office asked.
“Yes, I’m in the process of settling into a new apartment, and it is Holy Week. I’m using the time to move, to finish up here, and then to go to the Holy Week services.”
“Where do you go to church?”
“The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and on Sunday I am joining friends at St. Thomas.”
“One of our nephews sings in the boys’ choir at St. Thomas. We will be there, too!”
On Thursday, he walked over to Henrietta’s building which was also Kirsten Larsen’s building and escorted Kirsten to the Maundy Thursday liturgy at the Cathedral.
“Dewey, this is such a treat,” Kirsten said to him, holding onto his arm as they waited to cross Amsterdam Avenue, “I’ve never been to this liturgy.”
“Well, it’s at night, and I didn’t have anyone to go with. You’ve come to this?”
“Not here. When I was an undergraduate, I attended, but I haven’t since.”
The light changed, and they crossed the street and made the journey up the long flight of steps.
While they were walking out, Kirsten pointed out an icon that was on display. It was of the last supper.
“They look like brothers, don’t they?”
On the morning of Good Friday, Nic called.
“Hey, Bro! I have an idea.”
“I want to do a little touch up work next week on the shelves, and you’ll probably be back at work. Right?”
“So, could you lend me an extra key and let the doorman know that I’ll be coming in?”
“The thing is, with all the hubbub this week, it would probably be better if I got it today. Could you leave it with the doorman?”
On the Saturday before Easter, Dewey spent his first day alone in his new apartment. The other days Nic had been there at least part of the time. He had spent plenty of days alone in the apartment that he and Greta shared, but she was always, in one way or another, present: maybe she’d call and ask him to look for something or she had left him a list of things to take care of while she was gone. His days had always been ordered around her. Living with Nic was easy enough, but Dewey found himself watching and trying to defer. He knew this had not been needed, but it was a habit. When had the habit formed? He wasn’t even married to Greta for a decade. He had no siblings to share time or attention with, though, when he thought about it, there was always the grief that pervaded the household, a large, heavy object that he always maneuvered around. He read once that the death of a child is the most painful thing a human could endure. His parents endured and remained married. They were good enough to him, but he was also aware that his existence reminded them of Arnold who no longer existed.
Now he was alone. He got up and went to the kitchen. He stood at the counter wondering what to do next. He made some coffee and looked at it. He made some hot cereal and set it on the table with his coffee. When Greta had been on tour, he would have gotten out the lists she left him or checked for any emails from her. If she had been home, the protocol was obvious: see what she needed, be available if she needed something. He moved his breakfast to the window facing the park and watched a family of four working in the little garden on the median strip. The parents worked together, and the two boys played tag.
On Easter morning, he walked to Henrietta and Kirsten’s apartment building. Nic was going to meet them, and they would all share a cab down to St. Thomas.
“Nic had a call from a church to do some emergency work,” Henrietta told him, “He should be back in time for lunch.”
The three of them rode down to St. Thomas, and the driver took a route through Central Park. It had rained early in the morning, and everything in the park glistened.
Fifth Avenue was bustling with Easter celebration. There was a tradition of hats – women in florid Easter hats and bonnets, men in top hats. Kirsten, knowing of the long-standing tradition, had created a turben for herself. Henrietta wore a beret.
“I didn’t’ know about the hats,” Dewey said, apologizing.
“That’s not what we’re here for,” Kirsten replied.
Someone shouted Dewey’s name. It was one of the men from the dentist’s office. He scuttled through the crowd to greet Dewey.
“Mr. Clark, Happy Easter!”
“The same to you. Will your nephew be singing?”
“Yes, and he sits on the end of the pew on the organ console side, so it will be easy for you can to him.”
“It will be like watching a family member,” said Dewey, remembering the kind treatment he received over the past few weeks at the dentist’s office.
Henrietta had some places saved for them. Nic came just as the organ prelude was beginning.
“Did you get things taken care of?” Henrietta asked him.
“Most things, but I’ll need to leave right after communion because there’s one more thing I’ll need to get finished.”
“Won’t the service be over at their church?” Dewey asked.
Nic smiled, “I was in too big of a hurry to ask.”
Henrietta, Kirsten, and Dewey walked out of the service and through the crowd on the sidewalk with the intention of hailing a cab back to the Upper West Side.
“Dewey,” Kirsten said, “I would so much like to see you apartment.”
“I would, too,” said Henrietta. “Could we stop in and then walk over to Kirsten’s for lunch?”
“Well, I suppose. I think it is tidy enough. What if Nic shows up at your place?”
“I don’t think he’ll be done that soon,” answered Henrietta.
Dewey hailed a cab for the three of them, and Kirsten asked the driver to take them via Riverside Drive.
Dewey opened the door. His apartment was filled with people. The first people he saw were his parents.
“Happy Birthday, Dewey,” his mother said, kissing him on the cheek.
“Dewey, good to see you,” his father said, offering his hand, “You can thank Nic for getting in touch with us.”
Dewey said nothing and then looked around the room some more. The dentist and his brothers were in the room, along with various wives and children. Even the boy who sang in the choir at St. Thomas was there.
“How did you get here so soon?”
“We had a cab waiting.”
“The choir sounded wonderful, and I liked watching someone who I had a connection with.”
The young boy smiled and nodded.
Nic sauntered forward, “Happy Birthday, Bro! Now, we have a gift for you. Come over here.”
There was a carpeted perch in front of the window that had not been there when Dewey left in the morning. Sitting on the top were the two tabby kittens Nic and Dewey had picked up earlier in the week.
“We thought you should have some roommates. Henrietta and I thought the two brothers would like it here.”
5. Wolves Around the Tree
“…as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end…”
He woke suddenly. He couldn’t move and was afraid to open his eyes. His mind went over hundreds of details. Things he had not paid any special attention to the day before became monstrous creatures. In November his parents had watched a parade in New York City that was broadcast on British television. There were giant balloons in the shapes of cartoon characters, floating above the crowds in random patterns. This was what the images in the middle of the night looked like. They always looked like this, and even when he was able to relax enough to move, maybe even summon the bravery to get out of bed and out of his bedroom to the bathroom, it often wasn’t until the middle of the next day that he would recognize the images as “recurrent night terrors” that his psychologist said were common to those who had experienced trauma.
He did get up, used the bathroom, went down to the kitchen to eat a spoonful of marmalade, and went back to bed.
He had fallen asleep during the Psalms and stayed asleep during the first reading.
“Sergei,” Katya whispered, taking his hand, “the Magnificat.”
They stood together and crossed themselves as the choir began, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior…”
It had just begun snowing as they left the chapel. Sergei put his arm around Katya and kissed her temple.
“Terrors last night?”
“How did you know?”
“Sweetheart, you slept through the first third of the service.”
“Tsk, no need. It’s happened before. The world doesn’t end because of that, does it? Were they the usual?”
It took Sergei a block of walking to form an answer.
“Yes and no. Yes, but there was something different, too.”
“No, not better. I dreamt that I had climbed a tree and there were wolves around the tree, jumping up towards me.”
“What did you think while you were up in that tree?”
“I thought, ‘what will I do when my parents die.’”
“Sergei, it’s going to happen. They will die. How old are they now?”
“Not that old by today’s standards, but anything could happen. Have you talked to them about the details?”
“They talked with me about their will, what I will inherit, their last wishes regarding medical care.”
“So everything is taken care of.”
That night, Segei dreamt of the wolves again. It was, for the most part, the same dream as the night before, and he felt just as helpless. Katya had said, “Everything is taken care of.” But it wasn’t.
The day after night terrors was always hard. His nerves had spent the night in overdrive, and they weren’t wired for that much electricity. Frayed at the edges, he’d make his way through the day. He worked ¾ time as an art handler for one of the college museums. The work was quiet and physical, required carefulness but not a high level of literacy. He was diligent and useful to the museum; the art was soothing to him. He loved the feel of the frames and wood, or, in the case of sculptures, stone and bronze, in his hands. The shapes and colors absorbed the static of his overwrought nervous system. It is how he felt when he helped his mother in their tiny garden, tending vines and flowers and the kitchen garden with its lettuce and herbs. The plants and ground absorbed fear he could not contain, bringing him relief. His care enriched their life.
But it was winter, so the garden was not an option. Well, there was always Katya and their walks and attending evensong. The prayer book also took no more than it gave and was a shock absorber of sorts.
And Katya: that is what his psychologist often said to him, but Sergei disagreed. A person shouldn’t be a shock absorber. The overt details of their lives made Katya and Sergei an obvious pair to the casual observer: they had both been orphans in Russia, adopted by foreigners, raised in a foreign language, and both found themselves in Oxford, England. They both felt comfortable in the Church and with the rhythms of the Church. But they knew that the glue between them was a certain type of wound that they both bore, wounds inflicted by those around them, those who chose to use them. Neither of them spent energy privately or in conversation judging those who hurt them. There was enough pain without adding more.
Having found themselves treated as vessels and aware of the damage this caused, Sergei and Katya were studiously careful with each other. Each act of tenderness strengthened their bond. Both of them were poignantly aware that the other bore pain that no human had any capacity to heal.
The dreams continued, sometimes twice a night. His worked helped; the steady liturgies of the Church helped. He longed for spring-time gardening. He knew if he could skim a layer of anxiety off during the day, the nights would be somewhat easier, but it was the dead of winter.
One morning, he looked at the icon of Christ that he kept in his room.
“Here it is,” he said, “I have these wounds; I have this reality in my future: my parents will not always be here to shelter me. I only have so many tools at my disposal. I am mired in my fear and exhaustion and pain. There it is. I am your creature, and I need your help.”
He prayed this prayer each morning and each night. He didn’t tell his psychologist about it; he didn’t tell Katya. Each night the dreams came. There was variation, but the theme was the same. Each day began with the static of the night before, the exhaustion, the furious activity of his brain, the clench in his heart and throughout his body.
After the second week of praying this prayer, one thing changed: he began to actively look for signs that would point him in the direction he was supposed to go. He listened more attentively to the readings at Evensong and sang the words of the hymns more attentively, too. He realized that his difficulty in reading was a benefit in this situation. If it was too easy, he might not have to process each word so intently.
Everywhere he walked, he looked around for signs.
In his conversations with Katya and his parents, he listened for signs.
The dreams were the same, but even in his dreams, he began looking more carefully at the details.
It was brutal winter: ice storms, snow storms, lengthy cold. The buildings were built for milder winters. He and his parents often wore hats in the house and gloves with the fingers cut off. They drank more tea than usual and sat with blankets over their laps in the evening. Katya, who favored knee length skirts, began wearing long skirts and fur-lined boots. The two ice storms shut down the electricity for three days, causing pipes to burst and most digital communications to cease. The organs in the chapels had electric blowers, so Evensong, which continued, was sung a capella in chapels lit by candles. It was one of those winters where people stop complaining about the weather because it wastes energy and also cease thinking about the arrival of spring.
Time crawled for Sergei, too, but it gave him a wider berth for his new focus. The new focus came in the second week of praying the prayer which coincided with the beginning of Lent. He had to learn to live on his own. If he waited until his parents died, the waiting and wondering would only wear him down.
This was when he began to do a lot of math. He worked, had a salary but essentially no expenses. He lived with his parents who never questioned supporting him in this way, and he had health coverage from the government. His social life consisted of going to church with his parents and being with Katya – walking, going to Evensong, eating their bag lunches together during the week. He had saved almost all of the money he had made in the past few years. He also knew he had an “expectancy” from his parents: his father had inherited a modest income as did his mother, and they had always lived well below their means. He considered his savings and also approaching them about an advance, so to speak, on any inheritance.
After Evensong one Sunday, Katya asked him what he was doing for Lent.
“Tell me what you’re doing first.”
“I still haven’t decided. That’s why I’m asking you. Maybe you’ll give me an idea.”
“I’m making plans to live on my own.”
Katya slipped her hand into his, “What plans have you made?”
“Well, first I decided to do it. No, first I prayed about the terrors, and then it came to me that I needed to live on my own. This past week I’ve been doing math and looking at some places.”
“Have you told your parents?”
“I was planning to do that tonight. After I talk with them, I’ll have a better idea of what I can afford.”
“Do you have a schedule?”
“I think the sooner the better. These terrors are wearing me down, and if I’m too worn down, I might not have the courage I need.”
“Do you think this will cure the terrors?”
“I don’t know. But it will take one concern off my mind.”
“I won’t need to wonder when I’ll be forced to live on my own. I will know when, and I will be able to start learning whatever I need to learn.”
“Well, now I know what I’m doing for Lent.”
“I’ll be praying for you while you take this step, and I will be praying that I know how to support you.”
Sergei’s adoptive parents were supportive of his plans and would be able to help him financially.
He stressed that he appreciated all they had done for him and all they were offering to do, “but please don’t help me too much. I need to build my courage.”
His parents’ arrival at the orphanage more than ten years ago saved his life, and their support now was helping him to build a life as an independent adult.
The next day, after work and before Evensong, he met with a real estate agent who he had been in contact with. They viewed several places that were near the city’s center – close to the college he worked and within walking distance to Katya’s home. He wouldn’t need to buy a car, and he was very familiar with this part of town. It would be one less thing to learn.
He chose an upper apartment that had a view of the river on one side and the spires of ChristChurch on the other. It was available April 15, and he made plans to move in on that day.
After Evensong, he and Katya walked past his new place.
“I will move in on April 15.”
“Good Friday, you know.”
“Yes, well, we won’t be in church all day, will we?”
“Do you have things to set up a household?”
“I have my bedroom furniture. My mother has things that I was going to inherit – furniture and linens and also dishes – which she will give me now. I suppose I’ll see what else I need once I move in.”
“Is there anything I can help with?”
“I don’t want to ask too much.”
Katya knew what he meant and didn’t press the point. She took his arm and held it close to her while they walked in the chilly evening air.
Katya called Sergei’s mother the week before he was to move in, asking if there was anything the two of them needed.
“Well, Katya, you know Sergei loves to help me in the garden, and he won’t have a garden. Do you have any ideas?”
“I have a shelf of herbs in my kitchen that Sergei has often admired. Why don’t I make a collection for him and also collect a few other potted plants?”
“Yes, good idea, but not an Easter Lily. We have one in his name for Easter Sunday at the church and will bring it to him after the service.”
“Okay, anything else?”
“He will miss our cat, but I don’t want him to have to take on too much at once.”
“The college museum is closed on Easter Monday. Maybe I will suggest Sergei and I go to the animal shelter that day.”
“Good idea. Thank you for calling, Katya. You’ll be there on moving day?”
“Yes, and Sergei invited me to join your family for Easter morning’s service.”
Sergei had been planning in other ways, too. He began to watch everything. He began to notice ways his mother worked in the kitchen, the way she planned a grocery list or prepared for a visit to the bank. When a utility bill was lying open on her desk, he would take a moment to study it. He began to pay attention to the hours at the post office and pharmacy. When he helped his mother with errands, he made mental notes of where certain items were located in a store, what the price was.
He began to set his alarm for early in the morning, and he would go to the kitchen to make his own tea and breakfast. He tried to imagine what it would be like to do this without the promise of company, especially the kind, sturdy company of his adoptive parents. He would make notes of what his daily and weekly schedule would be like: how to fit shopping and cleaning and laundry around work and times with Katya.
Moving day came. His parents and Katya helped him move in the early morning. At noon, he and Katya attended the Good Friday service at the parish church she belonged to. After the service, she offered to walk him back to his new place.
“No, let me walk you to yours. I want to walk there by myself.”
It was late afternoon. He began unpacking some boxes, moving furniture into place, hanging a few pictures. By 6 p.m. he was hungry. He had bought a few groceries after he dropped off Katya. He cracked three eggs in a bowl and whisked them with a fork, heated a pan with butter, and cooked the eggs. He added some dried scallions and salt and pepper. He toasted a muffin and put the eggs on top and then sliced an apple and made tea. It looked like a dinner. His table was set up to face a window that looked out onto the river and had set the pots of herbs Katya brought on the window’s ledge. The meal tasted good.
He was tired, but it was too early to go to bed. He got out some drawing paper and a pencil. Though he worked at the college’s art museum as an art handler, he still did some of his own art in his spare time. What he liked best were pencil drawings on good paper. Katya knew how to use the computer to order handmade paper for him. It was grainy and thick. He liked the feel and sound of the pencil as it crossed the texture of the paper.
The readings from Good Friday were on his mind. He designed a cross using the words Christ and Us written in English and in Russian.
When it seemed like a reasonable hour to go to bed, he put on his pajamas, said his prayers, and turned out the light.
He woke suddenly. He couldn’t move and was afraid to open his eyes. His mind went over hundreds of details. Things he had not paid any special attention to the day before became monstrous creatures. He got up, used the bathroom, and went to the kitchen to eat a spoonful of marmalade.
The picture he had begun was sitting on the table. He sat down and looked at the cross and the words. He thought of the words from a hymn they had sung at the Good Friday Service, “by tasting fruit of the Forbidden Tree…” The woman at the orphanage who paid him “visits” used to refer to certain parts of her anatomy as fruit. “Apples?” she’d say, “Do you think they look like apples? Maybe small melons? As I age, maybe they’ll droop like pears. What do you think, Sergei?”
Katya and Sergei planned to attend the Holy Saturday service in the morning at his parents’ church and stay to help decorate the church for Easter. They worked together, separate from the rest of the group, cleaning the votive candle holder. He had come a long way in learning how to work with the agoraphobia that plagued him, but he knew his limits. They took a break and sat in a pew in the very back of the church.
“Katya, what was that hymn that had trees in it yesterday?”
“Well, I know there was something about a tree that had ‘forbidden fruit’…”
“We only sang three hymns. Let’s look them up.” She picked up the hymnal.
The first hymn she found was the one.
“Oh, I had it wrong. It is ‘fruit of the forbidden tree’.”
“But it says more, too. ‘Then another tree was chosen…’ Actually, as I scan it and the second part of the hymn on the right side mentions trees, to. You’re right, Sergei. Of all the years I’ve been in the Church, I’ve never heard anyone point this out.”
“Katya, help me read the other lines about trees.”
“One of them says, ‘one and only noble tree’. In the next verse, it says, ‘Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory’.”
That night, the pattern of waking was repeated. Sergei had been down this road before and had learned to ride the wave until the momentum eased. His psychologist said it had something about brain chemicals. He got up, used the bathroom, and made some tea. He got out the cross drawing that he had begun the day before. He looked at the cross and began adding branches and foliage, using letters from the words Christ and Us in both English and Russian. In the quiet of the wee hours, the pencil made a pleasing sound. He moved the pencil slowly, not adding that much, really. Then he sat back in the chair with the tea steaming up on his face, and looked at the additions.
On the Monday after Easter, Sergei and Katya went to the animal shelter to look for a cat. It had been a hard winter, and many stray cats had died in the cold. As a result, there were not many to choose from. A young black and white short hair male had been brought in that day.
“He hasn’t had any veterinary care yet,” the attendant told them, “but if you can wait until Friday, he’ll be here for you.”
Segei looked at the young cat who seemed unusually quiet given his age.
“Yes, I can wait.”
The night terrors continued, some nights worse than others. Sergei used the time to continue working on his cross/tree drawing, tending the plants from Katya, and constructing cat toys for his new roommate out of scraps of yarn and fabric that his mother had given him.
His mother called Katya.
“How do you think he’s doing?”
“I think okay. He has been falling asleep during Evensong, so I know he isn’t sleeping well. I don’t ask much. You know it seems to stir things up.”
“His psychologist had told us the same thing. How did you know that?”
I haven’t been through the things Sergei has, but I’ve had my own trials. Say, we found a cat. Did he tell you?”
“Yes. Friday’s the day?”
Instead of going to Evensong on the Friday after Easter, Katya and Sergei walked to the shelter. They borrowed a cat carrier from the museum director.
“You have some food at home and a dish for water?”
“Yes, and liter. Do you think he’ll like my place?”
“Do you like it? You’ve never said.”
“I lived with my parents so long that I still feel like I’m in a hotel or something.”
“Is that a yes or no?”
“It is like a new pair of shoes, Katya. Everything is fine, but it still isn’t natural yet.”
“How are the plants?”
“They get a lot of attention! It is nice to have them there. Yesterday I snipped some of the parsley for my eggs.”
They walked for a block in silence.
“We’ve only been talking about me lately. What have you been thinking about?”
“Lately I’ve been thinking about your big move.”
“Why? Are you worried?”
“No, I’m happy, but I know how big it is, so I’m watching.”
Sergei woke up in the middle of the night, his body rigid with tension. He had learned years ago to keep a night light on, so that, once he was brave enough to open his eyes, he would be reassured that he was simply at home in his bed. After about five minutes of being awake, frozen, and with his eyes closed, he opened them. Sitting next to him, looking right at his newly opened eyes, was his new companion. The cat reached out his paw and tapped on Sergei’s arm.
“You think I should get up, do you?” Sergei got up to use the bathroom and make some tea. The cat followed him. While he was pouring the hot water, the cat jumped up on the table and batted one of the toys Sergei had fashioned for him. This one was a little red ball of yarn. Sergei put it back on the table, and the cat batted it off again. Sergei laughed and sat down to work on his drawing. The cat climbed down on his lap and leaned his head on the table while Sergei drew.
“Sergei,” Katya whispered, “the Magnificat.”
Sergei had slept through the Psalms and the first reading at Evensong on Saturday. Katya took his hand to help him stand, and they both crossed themselves as the choir began. After the second reading the Nunc Dimitis, an anthem was announced, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, along with the instruction that a copy of the text had been slipped inside the hymnal covers, so people could follow along.
The Presider gave a short homily based on the text of the anthem, explaining that it was written in the late 18th century in America in a place where apple trees were common. Sergei lost interest in the homily because the third verse struck him:
I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.
On the way home, Katya asked him, finally, about how he was doing.
“I like my place. Already I have a routine.”
“You aren’t sleeping.”
“That’s nothing new.”
“I thought this was going to help.”
“I did it to help a fear I had, and it helped.”
“I didn’t know how I would live if my parents died. Now I am living on my own. If they die, I will miss them, but I will still have a home.”
“Why do you still have the terrors then?”
“The same reason I have always had them. Many things recall those times when I was trapped in a situation that hurt me. Sometimes I’m not even aware that it is happening until the terrors start.”
Katya didn’t say anything.
“Are you disappointed in me Katya?”
The dream was the same as it had been for months now. He was up in a tree, and there were wolves circling it. Before he could open his eyes, he felt a paw tapping on his forehead.
“Yes, little fur ball? I haven’t given you a name yet. No name has come to me. Should be get up?”
He got up and the cat followed him into the kitchen. While Sergei was making tea, the cat batted the little red yarn balls off the table on to the floor and then jumped off the table and batted them to Sergei.
“You like to play catch?”
Sergei kicked the ball back, “I’m too tired to do much more of this. I’m going to draw now.”
He had begun to put his cross drawing out before bed each night, like having an understanding companion waiting for him. He watched the little cat bat around the red balls and stop to look up at him.
Sergei smiled, “You’ve just given me an idea.” He got up from the table and found a red pencil in the drawer. Then he sat down and began drawing apples in the word foliage of the cross and also a few apples on the ground. Then he switched pencils and drew a cat at the bottom of the picture and quickly sketched a few wolves sitting nearby.
Sunday morning, Katya and Sergei went to church like they always did, and the priest talked about Doubting Thomas.
“Katya, will you come in for a few minutes? I’ve been working on a drawing I’d like to show you.”
Sergei showed Katya the drawing: the cross that had branches and leaves, using the words Christ and Us in Russian and English. Little red apples dotted the tree/cross and were scattered below. The wolves sat around the tree/cross and the cat looked like it was playing with the apples. Sergei’s cat came in, jumped on the table, and began rubbing his cheeks on Katya’s arm.
“Have you named your kitty?”
“Yes, I did just now.”
“His name is Thomas.”
“As in the Thomas from today’s Gospel?”
Katya was looking at the picture, “I see things that we have been talking about in the last week -- the cross and the tree, the apples, the wolves. Is this Thomas below?”
Sergei nodded again.
“But even if I didn’t know that we had talked about all of this, I would get a sense, a feeling. What will you do with it?”
“I want to build a frame and put it here in my eating room. This is where I sit when I wake up in the middle of the night. It has kept me company, along with Thomas, when I have the dreams.”
“Why the name Thomas?”
“Thomas knew there are always wolves around the tree,” he said, tracing his index finger over the drawing, “It is a beautiful tree, isn’t it, Katya?”
The Places We Are Called
from “The World” by Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)
“I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright….
Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soared up into the ring…”
Anna finished the dishes and looked out the window. It seemed to be dark so soon. What day was it anyway? She looked at the calendar on the wall and realized she had forgotten to change it. It was November 2: Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. They used to call is All Soul’s. She liked that better. Should we only commemorate the faithful? Well, maybe anyone who gets up in the morning year after year is faithful.
Her cat jumped up on the radiator and butted his head into her arm. It was already cold enough to have the heat on all the time. Maybe it would be an early winter, maybe a hard winter. She picked up her cat and hugged him. Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. Who would be on her list? Her husband died twelve years ago. Stefan died nine years ago. Stefan – what should she call him? Friend? Lover? He was Stefan, and he was gone.
She hugged her cat closer. He had come to her on the porch during the last months of her husband’s illness. The story isn’t that tidy, though. He came to her porch, but it was her husband’s lover, Michael, who noticed the cat who would eventually be named Simeon.
“Why Simeon?” Michael asked.
“He has helped me to bear this cross.”
She looked at her beautiful tabby, and he looked at her.
“Maybe I should call you Survivor; you’re the guy who hasn’t died.”
She felt the familiar wave of grief, the way it started in the heart and moved up to the throat, but she didn’t have the energy to cry.
She went into the next room and looked at the harpsichord. It had been Stefan’s mother’s instrument, and he had it sent to her after he died. Actually, he had it sent to the church she belonged to, and it had stayed there for six years. Then a new priest came and said he didn’t like harpsichord music and no one else did, either. She stared at him after he said this because this statement was inaccurate. No one had ever complained about her offering her harpsichord playing during services, and people often asked her what she was going to play. They had become, in this humble corner of Milwaukee, fans of harpsichord music. He qualified the generalization by saying that no one who he wanted to attract to the church would like harpsichord music.
She had the harpsichord moved back to her home which was only a few blocks from the church. She maintained her membership, attending the 8 a.m. service that had no music and withdrew from leading evening prayer, which she had done most Friday nights since her husband died.
For a year, she did not perform on it, but the instrument wanted to be heard. She began hosting house concerts every other month, inviting friends, people from the church, students and their families. It was an adjustment for her – she loved playing for the worship service – but at least the instrument was able to share itself. She thought again. At least she was also able to share her self.
It was November 2 which reminded her that the next day, November 3, was Michael’s birthday and they had plans to take a walk by Lake Michigan in the afternoon. She wondered if it would be cold and windy like it had been the past week. Michael came to the door the week after her husband had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, introducing himself as her husband’s lover and saying that he wanted to help. When her husband told her that he needed to express his homosexuality openly, she felt like her life jumped tracks. His diagnosis did the same. By the time she and Michael were sitting at her kitchen table drawing up a schedule for in home hospice care, she was beyond knowing how to describe her life. She was just living it.
Michael had stayed in touch, calling once a week, partially because they had become casual friends and partially, too, as a way of managing his grief. He had only been involved with her husband for six months before his illness. Through Anna, he was able to continue to learn about the man he had begun to love.
She stretched out her hand over the keys of the harpsichord. “When did my hands begin to look old?” she asked her cat. She shook her head, turned out the light, and went to run a bath.
Michael called in the morning to say that he would be late. “Car trouble,” he said, but she knew he was lying. He was a sweet young man and weak, couldn’t stand up for his self. He would arrive late for their meetings, smelling like sex and alcohol, rapidly enunciating his transparent lies. She never confronted him on it. Why don’t I, she often thought, but then reasoned that it might scare him away. He needed a safe place. And she knew she needed to continue to process what happened to her marriage and to her husband. She often wondered what the relationship Michael had with her husband was like, but she never asked. The answer, no matter what it would be, would come too close to the wounds that still lay raw inside of her.
Michael came an hour after they planned, and they walked on the path near the lake. It was cold and windy.
An email came from Fritz, Stefan’s son. The orchestra’s tour included Chicago, only ninety minutes south of Milwaukee. She had planned to go down by train to hear the concert.
Our schedule just came in. We will have three days off before flying to Mexico City. I can come up to Milwaukee for at least two days. Would it be best to take the train or to fly? Ingrid sends greetings. Mathias Stefan began violin lessons last week. As you might imagine, he is good! Write soon. All my best, Fritz
Anna got out her calendar and began to think about how to arrange this visit.
In the second week of Advent, the priest began his sermon at the 8 a.m. service by telling the tiny congregation that his wife had been diagnosed with leukemia. They were both in their early 30’s and had a three year old son. He said that the doctors were recommending a new treatment known for being particularly effective for this type of leukemia, but that the insurance company was not willing to cover the expense.
Anna didn’t hear anything else in the sermon.
After the service, she asked the priest, who she generally avoided speaking with, what the estimated cost of the treatment would be.
“Will you be in the office this week?” she asked.
“I would like to call you.”
“I will have my cell phone with me.”
She went home and did some math.
“Yes, Anna. You said you would call.”
“Stefan’s son will be in the country with his orchestra in January, performing in Chicago among other places. He plans to visit me. We could do a benefit at the church to raise money for your wife’s treatment. I’m sure he would say yes. His father died of cancer. Fritz was not as young as your son, but he did lose his father. Anyway, we have enough time to do the publicity that would draw the right people, especially with his name and also the harpsichord from Stefan.”
“Anna, I don’t know what to say.”
“Are you saying that this is a bad idea?”
“Should I proceed?”
“Do whatever you think is right. Let me know how I can help.”
Fritz agreed to the plan, happy to be able to help another family and happy to perform with Anna again. They had done a program in New York once and agreed that, given the short amount of time that they had to rehearse, that this would be the program they would perform at her church – a program of the music of Heinrich Biber.
“My father performed Biber with you when he visited, didn’t he?”
There were only about three and a half weeks to get everything put together. Anna still had connections musicians and organizations interested in Austrian culture, and it would be easy to interest the Chicago press in this event given its proximity to the orchestra’s appearance in Chicago. This would help bring well-heeled music lovers from the Chicago suburbs up to Milwaukee. The uniqueness of this particular harpsichord and the repertoire they would play would draw people from the universities in other parts of Wisconsin. By the third week, she had sold out the performance and raised enough money for the treatment the priest’s wife needed.
“Anna, this is Michael. What are you doing for Christmas Eve? I’d like to go to church with someone.”
Anna heard this message on her phone two days before Christmas Eve. This had never been a question in years past: she played at her church every Christmas Eve. Now she knew she would not be playing, and the thought of why she was not playing brought her pain.
“Michael, this is Anna. Well, what are you doing?”
“One of the Episcopal churches downtown has their Christmas Eve service at 7:00. I know you don’t like to go out late. What if I pick you up at 6:30?”
“Sure, let’s do that. Thank you, Michael, for thinking of me.”
“Anna, I always think about you.”
“You didn’t know that?”
6:30 came on Christmas Eve, but Michael did not arrive. At 6:40, Anna tried to call him, but she only got a strange sort of signal which let her know he had blocked her number on his phone. At 6:50, she took off her coat and made some tea. She sat at the kitchen table with her Book of Common Prayer and her German Bible. She read Evening Prayer in English out of the prayer book and the readings, out loud, in German.
The winter was a brutal one. Even the older people at Anna’s church said they could not remember a winter that had so much snow and so much cold. Most New Year’s Eve activities had to be cancelled because of a snow storm that dropped three feet of snow in less than four hours. This was followed by a week of sub-zero temperatures. This pattern continued through the third week of January when temperatures warmed up to well over freezing. Snow melted and flooded the streets, but the sunshine and the warmth made everyone tolerant of the mess. After this week, winter returned but without the forcefulness of the first three weeks of the year.
Fritz and the orchestra were performing in Chicago the last weekend of January.
Anna took the train down for the Friday afternoon performance. There had been some snow the night before, and the train arrived twenty minutes late. Still, after sleeping most of the way on down, she had plenty of energy to nearly run from the train station and make it to the hall on time for the 1:30 performance.
She had always thought that cities imprint themselves on the sound of the musician.
“Really?” Stefan had asked once, “Give me an example. For instance, New York…”
“Wildest bow arms I’ve ever seen,” and they both laughed.
In Chicago, the sound was precise and muscular, so to hear this Middle European Orchestra with its combination of rigor and lightness and warmth was like being transported to a different place – at least while the concert lasted.
She went back stage to find Fritz.
“Haselbock! Frau Ebner!”
Fritz made his way through the crowd of musicians.
“Anna,” he said, taking her right hand in his and kissing both her cheeks.
“Fritz. I don’t have much time until my train departs, but I wanted to greet you now.”
“You look wonderful.”
“You are kind. And you are looking more and more like your father.”
Anna spent Saturday getting all the details ready for the benefit concert. There wasn’t much she could do in the church until after services, but she could check with the people bringing the flowers and the caterer doing the reception after the concert. She called the priest about cleaning after the service and making sure the seating was adjusted and tables were ready for the caterers.
“Anna, you sound like a professional.”
“I did this for almost twenty years.”
“As a job?”
“No, my husband was the director of the art museum.”
“I never met him.”
“He died twelve years ago.”
Fritz arrived by train Sunday morning. Anna was there to meet him, and they took a cab to the church. They planned a program that would need almost not rehearsing: Anna would do solo harpsichord works by Biber; Fritz would do one solo work, and then they would do two sonatas that they performed together in New York.
They talked in the cab, and he showed her pictures of his wife, Ingrid, and their son Mathias Stefan playing his miniature violin.
“How good is he?”
“It frightens me.”
“For now it is fine, but such talent can corrode a person. You’ve seen that, too, haven’t you.”
“You mean those who trade parts of their humanity for the spotlight? Well, that’s one choice. No matter what, he’ll have to give something up. We all do.”
After dropping things off at her house and taking time to change for the concert, they walked to the church. She had had the harpsichord moved to the church the day before, leaving it in a side room. Some parishioners met her at the church in the afternoon to help move it into the sanctuary. While Anna tuned the instrument, Fritz warmed up and ran through his solo piece. Then they rehearsed together.
Everything was moving along smoothly. At 3:30, the flowers and caterer arrived and some parishioners to help re-arrange things in the sanctuary for the performance. Michael had helped Anna find the florist and caterer, and he arrived along with them, helping with odds and ends.
“Michael, you look so good in a suit. What do they say? You ‘clean up’ well.”
“This is your big event, Anna.”
After the concert, which was well-attended by music lovers from the Milwaukee and Chicago areas as well as some Austrian nationals, there was a little talk about the fund raising for the priest’s wife’s treatment and then the reception. Anna, dressed in a draping black dress that had embroidery done by a woman she met once in New York, floated among the guests, greeting people, introducing people to each other, making sure people were all talking and that the reception table was well-stocked. Fritz befriended the priest’s very young son.
Michael came up to Anna shortly after the reception began, saying that he had to leave.
He gave her a cocky smile, “Didn’t know this was going to be a dry event.”
“The priest is a recovering alcoholic.”
“Well, I’m not,” he quipped and left.
As the last guests were leaving, the priest approached Anna and Fritz.
“This was really a wonderful event, and my family is very grateful for your efforts.”
“It was our pleasure,” Fritz offered.
“Anna,” the priest continued, “I hope you’ll have the harpsichord moved out of here tomorrow. I have a group of priests coming, and I want to set the right tone.”
The next morning, while Fritz caught up on some sleep and did some practicing, Anna met with some parishioners who helped her move the harpsichord back into her house. While they were moving in, the Christmas Cactus was knocked over.
“Don’t worry. I’ll pick it up after you leave. Thank you for all the help.”
She saw the three men to the door and returned to the spilled plant. After scraping the dirt back into the pot, she re-watered it. An arm of the plant had broken off, so she filled an old spice bottle with water, put the fragment in the bottle, and set it on the window ledge above the kitchen sink.
In the afternoon, Anna and Fritz had lunch in her kitchen and then walked by Lake Michigan. It hadn’t snowed in over a week and had been sunny, so the sidewalks were dry.
Fritz left the next day to meet up with the orchestra.
Ash Wednesday came early that year and brought with it a snow storm of epic proportions. Bus service was canceled; the airport was closed, and most churches, including Anna’s, canceled their Ash Wednesday service. The bulk of Lent was filled with either snow storms or bitter cold, and most church goers laughed that the weather gave them more Lenten discipline than they could fabricate on their own.
Anna attended the Holy Week services at her church. For Easter, she had been hired by a wealthy parish near the downtown to accompany a Couperin Easter motet for two sopranos. She thought the whole thing was rather extravagant on the church’s part – hiring a harpsichordist and moving her harpsichord all for a seven minute piece – but she was glad to play in a church again.
Michael called her just after lunch to see if she had any time.
“I’m just putting some rolls in the oven. They’ll be done by 2:00. Come over then.”
Michael arrived with alcohol on his breath – not something new – but he seemed to be more inebriated than usual. They sat at her table and ate the fresh rolls. Michael began to tell a long story about some man he had just met, telling Anna details that were too explicit for her.
“Michael, I think the details are better left out for now.”
“Come on, Anna, you’re no virgin.”
That wasn’t the point, but Anna was at a loss for words.
“Well, maybe it’s been so long. I bet you haven’t been with anyone since Stefan…”
“Michael, we are friends, but you must understand that I am modest and private person…”
“Michael, you’ve never been like this. Maybe you’ve had too much to drink for us to have a…”
“He always said you had a prejudice about drinking.”
Anna looked at Michael and then stood up.
“That’s enough. It is time for you to leave.”
The month of April brought delicate green to the trees and bushes. Anna loved her tiny garden, and, though she had been planting and tending the plot for over a decade, the faithfulness of the plants surprised her each year.
And they kept her company. She had not realized before how much she relied on Michael’s companionship and his ties to what she often referred to as her “former life”. He kept her former life part of her present life, and his phone calls and walks and attention, however uneven, cut the loneliness into manageable pieces.
Winter had been hard, and according to the calendar it was over. Her heart, though, still felt helplessly frost bound.
It was Friday in the last week of April. There was an email from both the priest at her church and one from Michael.
The priest wrote, “Dear Anna, I was wondering if you would consider coming to the 10:30 service on May 11 and if you would be willing to bring and play your harpsichord. I have asked a few people if they would be available to help move your instrument, and they have all agreed. Maybe you could play the prelude and postlude? You can let me know. I hope you will say ‘yes’”
Not knowing how to reply, she opened Michael’s email.
“Anna, I am very sorry for my behavior on Easter Sunday. I have to tell you that I was crushed when you asked me to leave, and it was the slap in the face I needed. I got up the next morning and had myself admitted to an inpatient alcohol rehabilitation unit. I was discharged and am attending daily outpatient sessions. Anyway, I miss you. I know May 11 is Stefan’s birthday. Would you be available in the afternoon for a walk? Michael.”
“Dear Michael, I am glad to hear from you. I’ve missed you, too. Yes, I would like to go for a walk on the 11th. A couple of years ago, we walked in the park with the bridges. Do you remember? The trillium will be blooming. Let me know what time would be good for you. Anna.”
This was the easier email to answer. She reopened the other. What to do? She shook her head; the answer was not hard at all.
“Father, thank you for writing and for this offer. Yes, I will be available to play the prelude and postlude on May 11th. I will talk with you Sunday about help moving the instrument in. Thank you, again. Anna.”
She got up in the middle of the night, as usual, and noticed a brightness in the kitchen. Had she left on a light? She walked in. The night was clear, and the full moon nearly lit her kitchen. She looked at it from the window above the sink. Her eye caught the spice jar on the shelf that she had put the broken bit of Christmas cactus in back in January. It had a bud. She had never seen that: a fragment of a plant in a jar of water, ready to bloom.
Early in the morning of May 11 the phone rang.
“Hello, Fritz. How are you?”
“We are okay. You?”
“I’m okay. It has been a nice spring. You know, I don’t have as much time to talk this morning. I’m playing at church this morning.”
“What will you play?”
“Purcell. I’ve never played Purcell there, and, since I haven’t played there in so long, I wanted something different.”
“Yes, speaking of memories….”
“Yes, Fritz, it is kind of you to remember and to call today. How are you on this day?”
“I always think of him, but on his birthday more, and also because I am now working so much with Mathias Stefan on his violin playing.”
“Your father was a good teacher…”
”I wish he could hear Mathias Stefan. But, in his place, maybe you can?”
“Yes, we’ve prepared the very beginning of the Aria
of Biber’s F Major Sonata. Do you have
”Yes!” Over the phone, she heard the small sound of a small boy playing a small violin, but the understanding with which the boy played was not small.
“Fritz, I think you must be doing very well as a teacher.”
“Well, he has his special gifts, you know.”
“How is Ingrid?”
“She is fine and sends her greetings.”
“Tell her to write me. Fritz, thank you for calling.”
That Sunday morning was the height of springtime beauty: the trees and bushes revealing fresh and delicate greenery, the scent of lilacs and lilies of the valley wafted through the air.
It had been awhile since Anna had been to the 10:30 service. She forgot how the church changed with extra people, the bustle of children and parents coming from Sunday school, the sometimes elaborate coffee hours that came after the service. People greeted her kindly, and she was thankful that no one made reference to the changes in her activities at the church.
Playing the harpsichord for the prelude was unexpectedly emotional for her, and she was very glad that she had picked music that did not add to the flood of feelings. Memories of her first Sundays there after her husband had died, memories of Stefan’s visit, of seeing his mother’s harpsichord arrive, of recording on this instrument in the sweet acoustic of the room, and of many services moved across her mind. She knew the music at the moment needed her attention and promised her self that she would contemplate the emotions later in the day.
During the passing of the peace, she noticed the priest’s wife with their son, and she looked healthy. Anna had read in the newsletter that the treatments had been successful. Of course, reoccurrence was a possibility, but for the time being, the young family enjoyed a reprieve from illness.
After the Offertory hymn, the priest stood behind the altar to begin the Eucharistic prayer.
“On this Mother’s Day, I would like to offer this Mass in special thanksgiving for the life of Mrs. Anna Ebner whose generosity helped my family overcome – at least for the moment – the fatal consequences of a serious illness. Because of her generosity, my son has a mother on this day.”
At 2:00, Michael came over for their planned walk by Lake Michigan. When Anna opened the door, he handed her a bouquet of hand-picked lilies of the valley.
“Aren’t these your favorite?”
“Yes. Thank you for remembering.”
“Were they always?”
“What? My favorite?”
“Oh, I liked them, but the year Stefan died, I just couldn’t get enough of them. I never pick flowers out of other people’s yards, but that year I had no compunction about it.” She laughed, “Sounds sort of desperate, doesn’t it?”
They walked by the lake and in a part of the park that had beautiful wood brides built through the wooded area near by.
“Michael, how has it been going?”
“You mean the drinking stuff?”
“Well, I’m always scared that I’m going to fall. Sometimes I wonder if I should even be trying.”
“What? Be trying?”
“Yes. Taking the high road means you can fall, but the views are better.”
“He always said you had a good sense of humor.”
Anna smiled, “Are you still getting some help?”
“I’m still in outpatient treatment. I go three days a week.”
“Is that a lot?”
“It would be if alcohol was the only issue.”
“Anna, I’m also being treated for sexual addiction.”
They walked without talking past the newly blooming trillium and jack-in-the-pulpits.
“I never told you about this before.”
“How long have you known about it?”
“I first realized it when I met Richard.” Again they walked quietly. They rarely said the name of her husband.
“I suppose you wonder why I realized it then.”
Anna didn’t respond, so Michael continued.
“He was so hungry for sexual encounters with a man, and I realized I was taking advantage of him.”
“Michael, I am glad you are getting help. And I cannot talk about this any more.”
She woke up in the middle of the night with the feeling that she had forgotten to do something. What was it? She got up to use the bathroom and felt jangled. What was it?
Then she remembered: while playing the harpsichord at her church, she had promised herself that she would try to sift through all the memories and feelings that flooded her while playing. She hadn’t done that. The priest’s words before the Eucharistic Prayer had caught her off guard, and Michael’s revelation was painful in a number of ways.
She went into her living room and sat down at the harpsichord -- Stefan’s mother’s harpsichord. She began from memory the F sharp major prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Stefan said it sounded like a walk in the park. “For the listener, yes, but with this key signature…” and they both had laughed before she finished. Did she miss Stefan more than Richard? She had never lived with him; there weren’t the years which inevitably add some wounds. Stefan was a musician. Michael’s revelation came to mind again. How could it not? His admission to using Richard sexually brought pain to her sexuality. People had questioned the ease with which she had allowed Richard to explore his homosexual side. She knew it was not about her. The difficult parts of their marriage had more to do with equal footing. His role as the director of the art museum implied that his priorities were more important than hers. This was a problem. It was not easy to know that his attentions were divided; it had not been easy to set her sexual needs aside, either.
Michael’s revelation wounded her because in a marriage two really do become one flesh: what happens to one happens to the other. Michael had used Richard; in return, Anna felt used.
There was too much to process. She could not keep the promise she had made to herself. She tried to begin the F sharp major prelude again when Simeon jumped up on her lap as he did from time to time when she practiced. He sat on her lap with his head leaning against her chest, purring, looking up at her. She stopped playing and hugged him.
“I’m a little stuck here, loving fur ball. What should I do next?”
He jumped off her lap and went into the kitchen. She kept a small lamp on the table for times when the overhead lamp was too much. She turned it on and went to the sink to pour some water for tea. The moon was bright in the window -- seemed too early for a full moon. It was; the calendar instead said it was a new moon. She looked out the window again when her eye caught sight of the spice glass that she had put the broken stem of the Christmas cactus in way back in January. It was blooming.