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The Golden Sequence: a novella in the form of eight stories written by Karen Beaumont
The Golden Sequence: a novella in the form of eight stories
written by Karen Beaumont
"What is rigid, gently bend. What is frozen, warmly tend."
--Latin Hymn translated by John Mason Neale
Table of Contents
1. Outside Her
2. All the Way
4. The Dedication
6. In the Body
7. On Being a Man
8. Nunc Dimitis
1. Outside Her
Henrietta Clark was the unexpected child born in late middle age to two parents who were patent lawyers with their own practice and who were both severely hearing impaired. They lived on the Upper West Side in New York City, near ColumbiaUniversity. Theirs was, obviously, a very quiet household – no music, very little conversation. The Clarks sent their daughter to a French Immersion school and took her to the ballet on weekends. She excelled in French and went on to study French at the university, earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in French and a Master’s degree in Library Science. By the time she was thirty, she was working at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in the reference department.
Because her parents had her at a rather advanced age, they both were dead by the time she was thirty-five. She inherited their apartment and kept it as they did when they were alive. She enjoyed her work at the library, the combination of interesting conversations evolving from patrons’ inquiries and the quiet atmosphere. Though she dated a bit at the university, she discontinued the practice as it so often involved being in loud places. She rose early every morning to read a New York and London daily, walked the full length of Central Park and down to the library each day and then the full way home each evening. In the evening, she would heat up some dinner and read biographies or books on history, either in French or English. She attended the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Sundays and St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue on Tuesdays and Thursdays for Evensong. Saturdays she visited farmers’ markets when they were in season and would cook her meals for the week. Every summer she traveled to France or French speaking parts of Switzerland to keep up her skills and then to England to visit various Anglican Cathedrals and Religious orders. Her one act of rebellion was to give up the ballet subscriptions and to attend, almost weekly, orchestra concerts.
She was medium height and slim, wore classic styles and maintained the same classic, blunt cut hairstyle for her blond hair year after year. When she turned fifty, her doctor asked her if she was going to do anything to mark the special birthday.
“What would I do that would be better than what I’m already doing?”
That year she traveled, as she always did, in late September. The sink was clogged when she arrived home. Usually she could fix these things on her own, but this clog was stubborn. She called the building’s “super”. There was a knock at her door, and she let him in.
“You’re new,” she said to the young man who strode into her apartment.
“Nic,” he said with a grin and extending his hand. He saw the French book on her kitchen table and began to ask her about her sink in French.
“Quebec?” she asked.
“How did you know?”
“Why are you in New York?”
“Broken heart – geographical cure.”
He fixed her sink in a few minutes and left.
The next day the phone rang almost as soon as she arrived home from work. The person on the other end was speaking in French, asking her about her day.
“Excuse me,” she interrupted, “Who is this?”
“Nic, the Super.”
“Oh.” Before she could say anything else, he was asking her about her trip and where in the French speaking world she had traveled.
“Excuse me, Nic, but I just got home from work. I’m quite hungry and have heard quite a bit of talking already today.”
“Okay. I’ll catch up with you another time,” and he hung up.
This pattern continued about every other day. She wasn’t sure what to think – was he “safe”? Was he just lonely? One Tuesday the phone was ringing when she returned from work after attending Evensong at St. Thomas.
“Yes, Nic. How can I help you?”
“You come home later on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Yes, I attend Evensong at St. Thomas after work.”
“I was raised Catholic, but I don’t attend anymore.”
“What time does that service end?”
“How do you get back?”
“Can I meet you after the service and walk back with you on Thursday?”
She said yes, and when she hung up the phone, she wondered if it was a good idea and if it would even happen.
It happened. He was waiting on the steps when she walked out of the church. They walked the full length of Central Park and then up to their building. She had never walked so far with anyone or had a conversation that lasted that long. To her surprise, she enjoyed it. Nic was from Quebec, the son of an organ builder (“There are lots of them up there.”) and was trained in organ building (“Which is why I can fix things. If you can build an organ, you can figure out how anything works.”). He was thirty-five. He had been married, but things didn’t work out. There had been a lot of drinking, and when he went into treatment, the relationship ended. He had studied at a university but the drinking got in the way, and he dropped out. He was tremendously well read, though, and there were endless topics that they could converse about with equal knowledge and fluency, and they did so moving easily between French and English.
“I go to the Farmer’s Market on Columbus on Saturdays,” he said as they got to their building.
“I do, too.”
“Let’s go together. I don’t get up early, though.”
“I could go a little later.”
They went to the Farmer’s Market at 11:00 a.m., and the conversation was as energetic as ever.
“Let’s do this each week!” he said as they parted at their building’s entrance.
On Monday, her phone was ringing when she got into her apartment.
“I never asked you what you did the nights you don’t go to St. Thomas.”
“On Mondays and Wednesdays, I walk home, heat up my dinner, and read.”
“Right about this time?”
“How about I bring my sandwich over, and we eat together?”
“Oh. Well, okay. Then I will still want to have time to read.”
On Thursday after they reached their building’s entrance, he asked her about weekend nights.
“Maybe I shouldn’t ask, but I see you going out on the weekends.”
“I attend orchestra concerts.”
“Maybe some time you will take me. I usually attend recovery meetings, but I could take a night off some time.”
“I’ll think about it.”
This became their pattern without any interruption: Mondays and Wednesdays from November through the month of February he would have an evening meal with her. Tuesdays and Thursdays he would meet her at St. Thomas for a walk home after evensong. Saturdays they went to the market. Almost every weekend, she would attend a concert; he went to recovery meetings. “I go there on Sundays, too, instead of church.” And she attended church on Sunday morning.
In late February, she told him that her favorite orchestra from Europe would be at Carnegie Hall the first weekend in March, and, if he wanted, she would get tickets, so they could attend together. “This orchestra is so wonderful that it is worth hearing them each night they are in town.” With much enthusiasm, he agreed, and together they attended three concerts, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The concerts was glorious and the weather that weekend equally charming. Their conversation was, as always, spirited and wide-ranging. When they returned that Sunday evening, he asked if he could spend the night with her, and she said, “Yes.”
He woke up very early the next morning and told her he had to get to work. She kissed him goodbye and proceeded to get ready for her workweek.
When she got home that Monday evening, he was not waiting, so she called him. The phone number was no longer in service. She went down to the doorman to ask if he knew about a new phone number.
“He’s not here anymore, Ma’am.”
“He left this morning.”
“Packed his things and left.”
“Did he say when he would be back?”
“He packed his things
and left, Ma’am. He doesn’t work here or
live here anymore.”
”Did he say where he was going?”
“I asked. He said not to ask because he didn’t know.”
“Did he leave any messages for me?”
She went back upstairs, heated her meal, and read. When her meal was finished, she took a bath, put on her night gown, took a double dose of the sleeping pills she kept for long flights over the ocean, made a bed on the couch, and went to sleep.
On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, she repeated this pattern, except that on Friday night, she buried her head in her pillow and screamed.
That night she dreamt that she was lying on her back, naked, with a cut down her middle, from her sternum to her pubic bone. From the incision came a succession of large, brightly colored, tropical fish and birds. They floated out of her middle and perched themselves on shelves and tables and chairs around her apartment. They made no sound and sat peacefully on whatever surface they chose.
The next morning she got up at her usual time with plans for errands and the farmers’ market, except on her list she added the art supply store. She went there first, asking the clerk questions, and then buying materials for paper mache and paints.
When she returned, she asked the doorman about some boards she had seen in the basement. He said that noone owned them and that she could have them. She brought them up to her apartment on the elevator. She placed them on top of her bed and then covered them with plastic sheeting and began. Her efforts at first were clumsy, but she improved, fashioning large fish shapes and birds out of paper mache.
Each day that she walked the length of Central Park, she looked for stray birds’ feathers or dried tuffs of grass or anything that begged for another life. When she walked the streets, she kept her eyes on garbage piles, looking for bits of brightly colored fabric or paper, and she scoured tag sales for old buttons and beads. All of these were added to the fish and birds that soon began to fill her apartment.
Each day, after her evening meal and before her bath, she worked on the birds and fish, and by June, she was done.
One day in the elevator, a resident asked her if she was an artist.
“I see you with bags from the art supply store.”
“Well, I have been working on a project.”
“May I see?”
She let the woman into her apartment.
“I have a gallery that I call Outsider Art. This is exactly the kind of thing I like to show. I could fetch a good price for you. Would you be willing to sell them?”
A show of her fish and birds was scheduled the second week of September. It opened on a Friday night. The gallery swarmed with the hip people who wore glasses with ugly frames, talked too loudly, and, she thought, generally wore ill-fitting clothes. There was lots of gesticulating by the patrons and overly sincere, she thought, head nodding. She watched the people and thought of the name of the gallery: Outsider Art. She thought about how “outsider” rhymed with “outside her”. She had asked the owner of the gallery not to make her do any formal speaking about the exhibit. She didn’t know what she would say. A journalist figured out who she was, though, and came to ask her questions that she tried to answer with as few syllables as possible. His final question was, “So, what prompted this, some sort of mid-life fulfillment?”
“You know, something you wanted to do as a kid, but your parents made you be a librarian instead.”
“I wanted to work in a library. Fulfillment?” She knew she shouldn’t tell him about the dream because that would lead to more questions. He quickly grew bored and, thankfully, left.
All the works sold, and, as the gallery owner predicted, it “fetched” her a good sum of money. She took the total and wrote two checks, one to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she was a member, and one to St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue where she attended Evensong twice a week. The rector of St. Thomas invited her to tea after receiving the check.
“I read about your
show in the paper. I see you did
well. Will you be doing more?”
“No? Why not?”
“What I needed to get out got out. I don’t have any more of those in me.”
“What prompted this?” She studied his face.
“Something happened. Do you have a bit of time?” and she told him the story of her life and about Nic.
“Your heart broke, and the birds and fish came out.”
“Not easy to have a broken heart, especially in middle age.”
“Is it harder? I have never had one before.”
“What can I do to help?” She studied his face again.
“Pray that what is in me doesn’t stay locked up anymore.”
“That I can do.” He rose and took her hand.
“I am going to cry,” she said and left the building.
At the end of the month, she took her usual trip to France and England. When she returned home, she called a charitable organization that collected furniture for recent immigrants and had them come pick up her bed. Then she called an animal shelter and became trained in caring for “special needs” cats – learning to give injections and do hydration and all sorts of veterinary tasks – and how to foster kittens abandoned by their mothers. She took in these cats and kittens with her bedroom being their main living space. She took down the curtains and would put birdseed on the outside sill every morning. She built cat perches that went from the floor to ceiling and created fluffy beds in the darker corners.
She resumed the schedule she had before Nic had come into her life, except instead of reading the entire evening she spent the time after dinner with her quiet felines. She would come into their room after dinner. In their silence they would look at her, and she would look back at them, seeing her love and life reflected back in their glassy gaze.
2. All the Way
The first thing I did when I got off the bus in Des Moines was to find a place to stay that I could afford and that would be centrally located. I don’t have a driver’s license and applying for one would stir up too much. Anyway, this was not an easy task. Des Moines is built for cars. There are sidewalks, but for the most part, they aren’t used. Drivers were regularly ignoring my presence and nearly running me over. They didn’t do this out of malice. Believe me, these people are NICE. They invented the word. Finally, someone suggested that I try the Benedictine monastery. Religion is not my thing, but I knew they would be cheap and quiet, no alcohol, and the address looked okay for walking.
They took me. Right away, I asked the monk about any alcohol recovery groups in the neighborhood.
“You are a recovered alcoholic?”
“I am a recovering alcoholic,” I said, emphasizing the i-n-g part of that word.
“The Prior may have some ideas.”
He did. They were groups that emphasize religion – not my thing like I said before, but they were better than nothing. I attended one the first night in Des Moines.
“Hi, I’m Nic, and I’m an alcoholic.”
Next, I looked for a job. Handyman skills are always needed, and, with the monks help, I landed a job at the public library, helping to build and install shelves.
People were friendly and nosey. “What brought you to Des Moines?” I said I was in New York City, and it was too much for me. That was true. “Those big cities are for the dogs,” they’d reply. I agreed, though that wasn’t what was too much, but lying is easy for me, so easy I don’t even know I’m doing it. The best thing addicts do is lie. They lie so much that they don’t know what the truth is anymore. They lie so much that they lie about lies. “So, why’d you choose Des Moines?” “I heard it was a friendly place.” That was true, but that wasn’t why I chose Des Moines. I knew about Des Moines. My father was an organ builder in Quebec, and we installed organs in the city. I say “we” because I worked with him. But no one there would recognize me. The last time I helped him do any building was when I was twenty and that was fifteen years ago. “Well, we’re glad you are here. You seem awfully handy. Do you have a library card for that library where you’re working? Do you like to read?”
So, I got a library card and started carving out a life: live with the monks, attend meetings, build shelves, read when I’m not attending meetings or building shelves. I like to read, to read about anything.
When I was in New York, I met a woman in the building where I worked. She worked at a library and read all the time. She spoke French, too. That was great: talking in French with someone who read all the time. She was older – fifteen years. We mainly just walked places together. No dates, no pressure about anything – just use your imagination on that one. I don’t think she drank. I never smelled it on her; she never went out with people. She was religious, but she didn’t invite me to church. Can’t be around that stuff – the organs, the wine. Well, I would say “it’s the wine,” but it was really the organs. I heard them all the time, heard about them all the time, that’s all he ever talked about and all he ever did was build organs.
My father. He apprenticed with an organ builder in Quebec and fell in love with his daughter, my mother. Cliché, I know, but true. He was good at it and eventually inherited the business. He also inherited my mother. Ever heard the term “pussy whipped”? That was him – nothing he did was enough or good enough, nothing was as good as her father. And he’s such a goddamn wimp that he never fought back. She’d just nag and nag until he’d either break down in tears or rush back to the shop again. Another nice thing about the librarian in New York – she didn’t talk too much. Her parents were deaf or something like that and growing up that way made her really quiet.
Back to my father: wimp and I was hell bent on not becoming him. For a while, I thought I had no choice. I worked in the shop with him until I was 21. Then, one day, I just walked to the university and applied. I was accepted, announced the plan to my parents and left home. My test scores were really great, so I got scholarship money. Had no idea what to study – I’m interested in everything, really. So, I just took basic stuff. That is the year I began to drink. I went to a party where everyone was drinking a lot, so I did to. What the hell, right? It was a lot of fun and was completely different from anything my family would do. Then I met this girl Gina. She was always at the drinking parties, drank as much as any guy. Lost my virginity with her. She had an apartment, and I moved in with her. All we did was drink and screw and eat when we had to. No surprise, then, that I was kicked out of school by the second semester for failing all my classes.
She had money from somewhere, so neither of us had to work. I lived like this for two years. What did my parents think of this? I don’t know. Really, I was just too drunk, and, frankly, ecstatic to be doing something so different from my father. Why am I telling you this? Oh, my father. The kicker came on the eve of my twenty fourth birthday. Gina found out she was pregnant. She was too far along to have an abortion. Of course, we had been drinking all that time, so who knows what we had already done to damage the fetus. I never had a chance to find out because, seven months into the pregnancy, Gina smashed up the car, and she and the baby died.
That should have sobered me up, but being sober would mean I’d have to be a real person – face what happened to her, to the baby, to my own life for the past three years at that point, and face myself, and I didn’t know who the hell I was because all I had ever wanted was to be different from my father. So I went on a binge that nearly killed me. Ended up in the hospital and was in and out of psyche wards and treatment centers for three years.
Somewhere along the line, I realized I could be an alcoholic and not drink – I could just always say I’m an alcoholic, so I can’t do X, Y, or Z. I can’t take over the family business. I can’t get a driver’s license. I can’t get married. I can’t screw. I can’t do anything that will give me stress, because, I’m an ALCOHOLIC, and you don’t want me to DRINK, do you??
So, I became addicted to being an alcoholic who didn’t drink. Starting at about age twenty-eight, I meandered around: Toronto, Montreal. Then I thought I’d try the States with the goal of getting to New York. Why New York? -- Lots of people, easy to get lost in the crowd, VERY easy to avoid intimacy. Intimacy implies being real, and real was what I needed to avoid. When I arrived in New York, I found all the things I thought I’d find, and I was mighty happy.
Okay, so why did I leave? Why the hell did I flee the place of my dreams? If you had asked me the first two months I was in Des Moines, I would have made some sort of smart-ass reply that meant nothing and would hopefully make you laugh so hard that you wouldn’t realize I had just dodged the question. I would have done that because I wouldn’t have known the answer myself.
The person who asked me the question was Brother Andrew. Did I say already that Des Moines is small? It’s like a small town, so the brothers at the monastery where I was staying knew that the library project I was working on was coming to an end. The Prior also told me that they normally didn’t take long-term guests, but he had an idea. They had had a fire six months earlier that gutted the interior of their small chapel. All the clean up was completed, but now they had to redo the wiring, drywall, put in floors, everything. The monks were willing to trade room, board, and a small weekly allowance for five hours a day of labor. I said fine. I was to do this work with Brother Andrew who had, before he was a monk, worked as a handy man in a church somewhere.
Brother Andrew and I worked pretty well together. We talked some, too, about books that we had read or things about how to work with wood or certain tools. He asked about the recovery groups I attended.
“How many do you attend?”
“Four a week.”
“I’ve got to do this recovery thing all the way.”
He nodded. There was a way that he minimized the amount of syllables he used or would just respond by nodding that reminded me of Henrietta. She was the librarian in New York City that I referred to earlier. She was a great listener. She was a great friend, too. I remember the first time I saw her. I was the “super” in her building, and I was sent to fix her drain. Walking into her apartment was like taking a step back in time – old everything but not in a cobweb way – more like a museum. She opened the door – this slim, ageless person with blond hair, a curious look on her face, and big, blue eyes that always seemed to be asking questions. You could tell she never missed a thing but also rarely commented on what she observed. There was a book of French on the table, so I tried my French on her. I don’t know why I did it, but I began calling her, and, you could say, worming my way into her life. There was no disappointment any step of the way. She was interesting and self-sufficient, and she respected my privacy as much as she guarded hers. I told her lies, like I tell everyone lies, and I wonder some times if she knew I was lying. Of course, she never said anything. How did I get on this? Oh, yes, Brother Andrew.
So, one day he and I were bolting down the choir stalls, and I saw a space on one side of the chapel that didn’t have anything in it.
“That’s for our organ. It is coming next week.”
I almost gagged.
“We hope you will help install it. It would save us time and money.”
I didn’t say anything, didn’t blink, didn’t look at him.
“Nic, I was working at the church where you and your father installed that organ about fifteen years ago. I recognized you right away.”
I still didn’t stay anything.
“I can’t. I can’t. I’ll drink.”
“Installing an organ will lead you to drink?”
I was paralyzed, catatonic, in a corner. There was no way that I could turn, no smart-ass remark to get me out of this, no lie because there were so many tangled up lies by this point.
Brother Andrew left the room, and the Prior returned. Guys don’t get into the position of Prior without having some kick-ass people skills. I wasn’t going to be able to dodge this guy.
“Brother Andrew thought I might be able to help out at this point.”
I stared at him. I absolutely had no word to say.
“Okay,” he said, “why would helping to install an organ lead you to drink again?”
“The thought of organ building makes me want to be drunk.”
“There’s no pressure about when the organ needs to be done. It is a small instrument – much smaller than the one you helped install fifteen years ago. From what Brother Andrew tells me, you were involved in all of the details. People reported that you were more skilled even than your father.”
“I don’t want to be compared to him. Listen, I can’t start drinking. I’ve got to do the recovery thing all the way.”
“You’ll never recover until you know why you drink in the first place. Do you know why?”
“Have you thought about it?”
“You’ll never recover until you know why you drink in the first place. And, given what little I know about your history – that you once built organs in Quebec and that fifteen years later you arrive in Des Moines after living in New York City with no job or contacts – it seems like you’re running, too. What are you running from, Nic?”
“I’ve got to get some fresh air.”
I left the monastery and walked and walked. Walked by the lake. Walked behind the art museum on this path that lead out of town. Walked back again and walked the other direction. I walked by the river. The Prior’s two questions would float across the screen of my mind and then away again. I had no answers. Why did I drink in the first place? I tried to remember. What was I running from? Why did I leave New York, place of my dreams, place where I met the best friend of my life?
The last weekend I was in New York, she took me to see her favorite orchestra. I had never gone with her. Sort of a touching habit of hers, being that she grew up with nearly deaf parents. The weekend was magical. The music was as good as she said it would be. March had come in like a lamb, as they say. If I thought, which I did from time to time, that I was falling in love with her, this weekend confirmed the sentiment. I thought she was beautiful and interesting before, but she became even more so as the music enlivened her features. When we returned to our apartment, I asked if I could spend the night with her. “Just to sleep,” I said. It is what I meant, too. First of all, I thought it was quite possible that she was still a virgin, given what she had told me about her past. Secondly, I wasn’t ready. Gina was the only woman I ever screwed, and I was always drunk when I did it. Man, how did I even get it up? I guess I was young. So, I really meant just to sleep together. She said, “Okay.” I went to my apartment and changed into sweat pants and a t-shirt. When I got to her place, she had a flannel nightgown on. We got into her bed, and I folded myself around her. She was so small, like a little cat.
Why did I leave? Why did I leave her?
Des Moines is a windy place, but, as the sun was setting, the wind died down some. I was headed back towards the monastery. Des Moines is also a quiet place, and no cars passed me for the next few blocks. I could hear my footsteps. I noticed the feel of the evening air in my nostrils. I felt my self, and I knew what I had to do.
When I got back to the monastery, the monks were cleaning up from supper. I asked the Prior for about fifteen minutes.
“Okay, I’ve made my decision.”
He didn’t say anything.
“I’ll stay through the completion of the chapel and the installation of the organ. I will help with whatever I can.”
“Is there anything I can do for you to help with this?”
“I’d like to, briefly, tell you my story and see if you can help me to answer the questions you asked before.”
So I told him about my father and mother, about the drinking and Gina and the baby and the accident. I told him about my dream of living in New York and why it was a dream, and then I told him about Henrietta.
“We can batten up all the hatches and doors against the Self,” he said when I was finished, “but the Self will find a crack to get into.” Then he left the room.
We finished up the chapel in August, and the organ builders, from Wisconsin, came in September. They were familiar with my father’s work and immediately accepted me as a member of their team. It had been over fifteen years since I had handled pipes and participated in the many mechanical maneuvers required to install an instrument, but let me tell you, the muscles – physical and mental – hadn’t atrophied a bit. About two-thirds into our work, I offhandedly asked the senior member of their outfit if he knew of any builders or repair people in New York City who he would be willing to recommend me to. Of course he did; the organ-building world is tiny.
Next, I went to the Prior and told him my idea: if I could get work in some aspect of organ building in New York City, I would go back, and I wanted to contact Henrietta.
“Maybe I can write her a letter.”
“Will you tell her the truth?”
“I want to. Maybe you can read it first?”
He agreed, and, using their computer, I typed a letter, re-telling her my story (truths corrected), apologizing for lying, telling her what she and her friendship meant to me, and asking if she’d be willing to take me as a friend again. The Prior read it, asked if I needed an envelope and stamp, and suggested I provide her a return address and phone number.
I mailed the letter and asked every day if I had any mail.
The organ was completely installed and voiced by the end of September. The builders had put me in touch with people in New York City who agreed to take me on and provide temporary housing. I was to be in New York by mid-October.
Ten days after I sent Henrietta the letter, I received a reply.
Thank you for writing to me. I am glad to know that you are okay, because I was worried.
My schedule is, for the most part, the same as before.
I don’t know what else to say.
I showed it to the Prior.
“What should I do?”
“What do you want to do?”
“Be near her again.”
I moved back to New York in the middle of October. The company I was to work with was family run, like so many of them, and I immediately became part of their family. I was glad to be back in the noise of New York, all the smells and varieties of people. I was glad, too, to be working with organs. I was so happy about this that I forgot to look up any recovery meetings.
November 1, All Saints Day, was on a Thursday. I made sure I could be done working by 5:00 and made my way to St. Thomas. The organ prelude had begun. They were using the front organ, one I knew about because of its historic significance in North America but had never heard. I walked down the center aisle. I spotted Henrietta sitting on the end of the third pew from the front.
She turned toward me, her blue eyes wide. I had never known anyone who could say so much with their eyes without barely moving a facial muscle, but she could: relief, sadness, wondering, and even a tinge of anger all passed before me in her eyes. She moved over, and I sat down.
When the prelude ended, the processional hymn began. I opened the hymnal as she and I stood together and held it for the both of us to use. She stepped closer. She put her right arm around my waist and helped hold the hymnal with her left hand. The organist finished the introduction, and we joined the congregation in singing the hymn, For All the Saints.
“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”
It shouldn’t have happened. This is what she thought as she walked East on Main Street. The bells at Queen’s were ringing for Evensong. It shouldn’t have happened. She checked the directions. She had to get to Iffley. She was a Russian tutor. She usually didn’t tutor people in their homes or tutor in English, but this student was different. He was Russian, adopted when he was fifteen and now was twenty-one, still not fluent, somewhat agoraphobic. He wanted to study art but couldn’t pass the English proficiency tests. His adoptive parents thought someone who was fluent in Russian might make him feel more at ease.
The bells ringing made her yearn to attend Evensong instead of teach. The Church of England, like the country of England, was her adopted home. She remembered how it first came up. She met her future husband in graduate school in the States. One Sunday morning in bed, he asked her if she ever went to church.
“I was raised in the UnitarianChurch.”
“That’s not a religion.”
“No, it isn’t, but it was our church.”
She had been adopted at age ten from an orphanage in Siberia by a couple who, in their fifties, after achieving success as Russian scholars and securing tenured positions at a Midwestern university, decided they wanted to raise a child.
“If we married, would you become a member of the Church of England?”
“Are you proposing?”
“I need to know you will be a member of the Church of England before I propose. The Church is very important to my parents.”
“I would. But, if that is important, why are you proposing to an American?”
“People think I came to America to study, but I really came to look for a wife.”
“Because American women are healthy and beautiful.”
“But I’m not really an American.”
“You are healthy and beautiful.”
She became an Anglican, and they went to England to be married. Soon after, he procured a job at a college in Oxford. She tutored students in Russian, did some translations, and socialized as the wife of a professor.
Three years into their marriage, she still had not conceived and, at his urging, began fertility treatments. The treatments had terrible side affects and did not work their magic. At age 29, she was still barren and ravaged by the treatments. She discontinued the fertility treatments, but the intestinal problems persisted. A battery of tests revealed no intestinal disorders but, instead, a tumor on her ovaries. There was surgery and a cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy, the loss of hair and weight and dignity and the ability to ever bear children. During that time, her mother, a life-long diabetic, suffered from unexpected kidney failure and died. Three weeks later, her father, grief stricken, died of a heart attack. The chemotherapy made her too ill to make the trans-Atlantic flight for either funeral. Old family friends sent photos via the computer of the funerals. The day her chemotherapy treatment ended, her husband announced that he was filing for divorce. He needed to produce an heir for his family. By the time her hair was long enough to comb, he had applied for and was accepted for a visiting professor position at an Ivy League school in America. Six months after that, she read in the newspaper of his engagement to a young woman whose mother was a Broadway actress and whose father was an Anglican clergyman.
She stayed in Oxford. She had students and a place to live, and the Church of England had become her home. She began to carve out a life of tutoring and translating, became a member of a parish church for Sunday worship, and visited various colleges for Evensong during the week.
She had been tutoring at Queens and attending Evensong there on Wednesdays. The Greek professor often sat with her. He was almost always alone as his wife was an invalid – a riding accident after their fifth child was born. His children were now grown and his wife bed-ridden.
He asked if he could walk her home one evening. She said yes, and when he invited himself up to her apartment, she also said yes. And when he nearly attacked her with a passion she did not expect, she did not resist. Her sexuality had taken quite a beating, and she was glad to express it again.
That is, until she realized she wasn’t expressing it at all, that the entire affair was based on his pent up sexuality that seemed, after awhile, to be obsessive. When she tried to talk about this, he laughed at her and would pull at the buttons on her blouse. She ended the affair and stopped attending Evensong at Queens. She wished the affair had never happened; the cure it promised ended up damaging her worse than she had been damaged before.
She crossed the bridge into East Oxford and headed up Iffley Road. She turned right near the Roman Catholic Church run by Franciscans and checked the address once more. When she reached the address she had written down, she rang the doorbell, and a woman answered the door.
“Yes, here I am.” She still had a difficult time remembering her new last name. She had chosen a completely new name when her marriage ended. She didn’t want to use her husband’s name, and the family name of her adopted father, Kiltzer, seemed too ethnic for a citizen of England. Newman appeared in the phone book enough times for her to believe it was common.
“I’ll show you to Sergei’s room.”
It was a well kept home, and both parents seemed kind and quietly generous.
“Sergei, Miss Newman is here.”
In the partially lit bedroom sat a young man with dark, closely cut hair. He stood as she entered.
“Please call me Katya,” she said, extending her hand.
“Sergei. Pleased to meet you.” He pulled a chair from next to the desk and motioned for her to sit down.
“Where should we begin?” she asked in Russian.
“I was born in St. Petersburg. Where is your family from?”
“I was, like you, adopted, but from Siberia.”
“Twenty four years ago. I am thirty four now.” They sat in silence for a moment.
“I need to learn English better. I would like to study art in a school, and for this I need to learn English better. But it is hard for me to get out.”
“How is your reading?”
“Poor. Poor in Russian, poor in English.”
“Let’s begin with conversations then – some of each language. But it is small in here. We are near the river, and there is a nice path that I know of. Next time, can we walk there?”
“If it is okay with my parents.”
“I will ask. I am to come on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Let’s plan, for now, to walk each day.”
This began a month of thrice weekly walks along the Thames, the same path each time, with conversations about England and the food and the customs – things that are best observed as a foreigner. She told him about how she came to England and the events of her marriage and illness. They covered a lot of vocabulary this way. One day he asked her why she stayed.
“The Church of England.”
“You are not Orthodox?”
“I was raised in the States by parents who were Unitarian – not really a religion, more an investigation. I married into the Church of England. Are you Orthodox? I have seen two icons in your room.”
“Do you need to be Orthodox to have icons?”
“Well, no. I have an traveling icon of Mary and Jesus that I keep by my bed.”
“Do you travel a
“Not at all, but it is the icon my parents gave me when I emigrated.”
“I attend church on Sunday with my parents. I suppose that means I’m Anglican. I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Have you been confirmed?”
“No, that would mean attending classes.”
“If you could receive the instruction at home, would you be confirmed?”
“What do you think?”
“I think it might be nice for you to have an anchor besides your parents.”
“I’ve only been to their church on Sundays. What if I attend another and find out I don’t like it.”
“Come to Evensong with me some time.” She knew this was bold – inviting him to another church outside of his familiar sphere.
“How would I get there?”
“I would meet you at your house and walk you there and back.”
They walked in silence for a few steps.
His mother was happy when Katya told her this plan. The next Tuesday she arrived at 4:30, and together they walked to New College for Evensong and then back to his home.
“How can I study to be confirmed?” he asked her as they neared his door.
“Let me work on that.”
She talked with his parents and then the priest of their parish church, obtaining a curriculum. They would attend Evensong every Tuesday and Thursday, and on Saturdays they would study confirmation materials at his house. He would be confirmed at the Easter Vigil at his parish church, and she would be a sponsor.
In addition to her tutoring work, she had been working with the curators of one of the college’s art museums on a show of icons. She helped write and translate the catalogue which would be used at the Oxford exhibition and then when it moved to Moscow. The opening was on a Thursday, during Evensong time, and she was supposed to give the introductory remarks.
She told Sergei of this and invited him, and, surprisingly and without hesitation, he agreed. His parents dropped him off as near to the door as was possible. When she saw him enter the gallery, she broke from the conversation that she was a part of to greet him.
“Sergei,” she said, stretching out her free hand to greet him. As usual, she wore a black skirt that fell just below her knee, but instead of the usual tailored blouse or sweater set and scarf, she wore a black suit. Her hair, usually in a French twist, was down – shoulder length, black and wavy, and held back with two silver combs that matched the orthodox cross around her neck. She had replaced her boots (“I must wear heels,” she said once, “because I am so short, even in England!”) with black pumps.
“You look very pretty, Katya.”
“You are looking handsome in your suit and tie, Sergei.”
He noticed the glass in her hand, and, when he did, his eyes flew open as if startled.
“Is there something the matter?”
“Is that wine?”
“No, it’s punch. I don’t drink. But there is wine. Would you like some?” she asked, motioning to the table in the corner.
“No!” he said too loudly. “No, but maybe some punch.”
They walked to the table, and she explained that she had a place in front saved for him.
“I am going to end my talk with questions, and then we can go around to look at the icons. The cards are in both Russian and English, so it will be good for our studies.”
As she said, they toured the exhibit after her talk. She hooked his arm in his.
“This way people will be less likely to interrupt us.”
“You seemed very comfortable talking in front of all these people.”
“I’ve spent most of
my life in this sort of environment.
When are your parents coming?”
”I’m supposed to call them about 8:00.”
“It is ten to 8:00. Let’s go out for a bit of fresh air.”
They called his parents and waited outside. When his parents arrived, he kissed her cheek and, without saying goodbye, got into the car.
This became their pattern as they moved into Lent. Every Tuesday and Thursday, she would meet him at his house to walk to Evensong. When they turned onto Iffley Road, he offered his arm, which she took. They talked in Russian and in English about the weather and the news and childhood foods, about religion and the ways of the English. At Evensong, they would always share a prayer book, so she could trace her fingers along the words to help him to read. She did the same as they stood together singing English hymns with a Russian accent. When they walked home, he would offer his arm again and, right before turning right off of Iffley Road, he would kiss her cheek.
One Thursday he asked why they had never been to Evensong at Queens. She waited to answer and then told him the story of the affair.
“It was the last nail in the coffin, as the saying goes.”
“The coffin of my sexuality.” They walked in silence for a block.
“Maybe I have been too forward, Katya, maybe I’ve been hurting you.”
“Sweet, beautiful Sergei – you are not hurting me. Your affection is quite satisfying to me in that way. It is enough.” After another block of silence, she spoke again, “But I have been wondering if, now that we are friends, if I should stop accepting money from your parents.”
“No!” he said loudly, like the time he refused the wine, “Then they will make me meet another teacher.”
“Oh, yes, I see. We’ll keep things as they are.”
The night of the Easter Vigil had arrived. She met Sergei and his parents at their house, and they all drove together to the parish where his parents were members. He sat between Katja and his mother. During the exchange of the peace, she hugged him and kissed his cheek.
“Welcome, my friend, to the Church of England.” There were smiles all around.
During Lent she had also been working on another art exhibition catalogue, and the opening was to take place the Thursday after Easter. There was a collection of 19th century art recently discovered in Russia, and the college had planned another joint exhibit with a gallery in Moscow. As she did for the icon exhibit, she helped write and translate the catalogue and was asked to give the introductory remarks at the opening. Sergei was dropped off by his parents and joined her after the talk for a tour around the gallery. There were more people in attendance, and much more wine flowing. “It isn’t religion,” she said in response to his question. In front of them at one point were two women – known in the community for their eccentric ways and their marriages to titled men. They had obviously been drinking quite a bit and were talking loudly, addressing each other with lavish affection. The approach of Sergei and Katya distracted them from each other.
“Darling, there is the saintly Katya and her boy-toy student.”
“He is a cutie, isn’t he, and a virgin – can’t you tell?”
Before Katya could steer them away, the one woman had her arm around Sergei and was pushing him toward the painting of a nubile nude.
“I don’t look like that, sweetie, but I could pleasure you just the same,” and she gave him a squeeze on the bottom.
At this Sergei yelped, pushing the woman aside, and running from the room. He knocked aside an older woman before tripping over a chair and landing on the corner of a table, cutting his head. Bleeding, he quickly gathered himself and ran from the gallery.
Katya followed and found him outside, wretching. Two men from security followed. She motioned them to wait and reached out for Sergei’s arm.
“Don’t touch me, you bitch!” he screamed in Russian and then fainted.
Katya went inside to call his parents who came immediately and drove him away. Katya gathered her belongings and went home.
The next morning, his mother called Katya. He had been admitted to the psychiatric unit of the hospital and was being treated for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“May I call you tomorrow to
inquire about his well-being?”
”Of course,” his mother replied.
On Saturday she called.
“He would like to see you. Could you come after church tomorrow?”
She found him in his pajamas, lying on his bed. She sat on the only chair in the room.
“How are you?”
“They have me pretty well drugged. I don’t know how I am. I’m really sorry about the other night.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“It isn’t pretty.”
“Will you tell me?”
“When I was fourteen, there was a woman who worked at the orphanage. She was famous for her drinking. Anyway, she took an interest in my art, which I was happy to show her. But then she noticed that my voice had changed, and then her interest changed. She did things to me. She would come every day and close the door. Just remembering the smell of her alcohol breath and the smell of her womanhood floods my brain with pain, making it hard for me to recall the details. I’ve never told anyone all the details. I don’t want anyone else’s brain to be infected with such horrible pictures. I almost took my life for the shame of it. But then, miraculously, my parents came. Being away from Russia and Russian helped. My parents don’t drink. That has helped, too. But I couldn’t go out, even in England. There were women and the smell of women and alcohol and advertisements with sex. Movies and television shows have sex. People walk in ways that suggest things that trigger terrible feelings in me. You were like an angel – beautiful and could speak Russian, but you can also speak English, and you go to church. Even with you I am terrified. I wake up in the night with my heart pounding and my body frozen – that you will turn out to be a monster, too, or that you will meet a real man – not a young man who will probably never be able to live a real married life with a woman. I am terrified by the shame of my past and how it has warped me. I am terrified that wanting you for myself will only lead to disappointment or that maybe my past will warp you as well…”
“Sergei, I too am damaged. Sometimes, when we are damaged, we have to allow that part of ourselves to live as it can.”
“You are being kind.”
“I’m too scared right now to think straight.”
“How can I help?”
”I don’t want to miss Evensong, but I can’t be out in the world yet.”
“I will bring my prayer book.”
“I want to sing, too.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
She knew a choral scholar at one of the colleges from some coaching she did on the pronunciation of the text for Rachmoninov’s Vespers. She called him and told him of what she needed. He provided her with chants for the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis and the Phos Hilaron, a
Pitch pipe, and a hymnal.
Beginning the Tuesday in the second week of Easter, they met at their usual times, except they were in the hospital. They sat at his desk, singing the canticles, reading the Psalms in unison. She made him read the scripture by himself. They didn’t talk much, and they exchanged no affection.
On the Saturday in the fourth week of Easter, they were reading the Psalm appointed for the evening, Psalm 139. “If I say, surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night. Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light to you are both alike.” He read the first lesson, and then they began to sing the Magnificat, “My soul doth magnify the Lord…”
“Stop,” he said, turning to the Psalm they had just read. “Katya, I think I see how these go together. I don’t know how to get from one to the other, though. It is like a difficult math problem that hurts my head. I know it works, but I can’t figure out how.”
“I don’t think we can figure it out, Sergei. I think we have to live it out.”
He put his arms around her and sobbed.
The next day he called her.
“Can we go to Evensong at New College on Tuesday? My parents are willing to drop me off at the gate.”
She waited at the gate for his arrival. When they walked through the entrance into the college, he offered her his arm and she took it without comment. After a few steps he stopped.
“Katya, do you think that the way we are together, do you think that this could be the way we express our – the way we are…“
He kissed her forehead.
“The bell is ringing.” And they walked, arms hooked, towards the chapel door.
4. The Dedication
A student with too much time on his hands had made her a stack of illegal recordings. It was Saturday night, and her husband was out. He had, in middle age, come out as a gay man, and he went out to the bars to create a new social group for himself. She flipped through the disks: lots of jazz, some sound tracks. There was a disk of an Austrian orchestra performing a Bruckner symphony. Both sides of her family came from Austria. She lay down, feeling tense and exhausted from the changes in her life. She listened to the music. She was a harpsichordist favoring Bach and composers from the French Classical Era, yet the middle European ethos of this music felt familiar and gave her comfort.
[a few years later]
Her fortieth birthday was approaching, and she wanted to celebrate. Using her connections, she arranged for a harpsichord recital in an art gallery in New York City. The Austrian orchestra whose recordings she enjoyed was performing in New York at the same time. She bought a ticket to the performance and made travel arrangements.
There was a snowstorm the weekend she flew to New York City. She barely made it into the city in time to hear the concert. What she heard at the concert from this orchestra made her once again realize how much musicality cannot be captured on recordings. The live performance by this orchestra enlivened her, and she played her own concert a few days later feeling awakened.
She wanted to express her gratitude, so she wrote the orchestra a thank you note and sent it across the ocean.
Three weeks later, a letter arrived.
Dear Frau Anna Ebner,
We thank you for writing to us and are touched that a fellow Austrian living in the U.S.A. would travel to hear us. We recently recorded the Austrian composer Anton Webern’s arrangements of Bach that I have enclosed for your enjoyment.
Stefan Haselbock, Concert Master
She enjoyed the recording. She herself had recorded some French music the year before and thought she may send them a copy of her work. She got out the recording to listen to it again.
She reread the liner notes. The recording was dedicated to her husband. The year after he came out as a gay man, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He wanted to die at home, so she made the necessary arrangements. A week later the doorbell rang.
“I am his lover,” the young man said, “I would like to be a part of this.”
She let him in, and they sat at the kitchen table, dividing duties, making up a schedule. She gave him a key to the house.
Four months later, her husband died. The hospital bed was returned; everyone left. There was so much extra time in each day. One of her wealthy students suggested she make a recording and offered to finance it.
She sent her recording to Austria with a note thanking them for the Webern.
Nine months later, a letter arrived.
Dear Frau Ebner,
Thank you for the recording. My mother was a harpsichordist, and because of this, I have a fondness for the instrument.
We will be performing in the United States again soon. Will you be there? Maybe we could greet each other in person.
Dear Herr Haselbock,
I regret to say that I am not able to hear you in person this year -- maybe next year. I am happy that you enjoyed the
She decided that the following year she would try to arrange a performance in New York City at the same time they were performing there.
Dear Herr Haselbock,
This year I will be in New York the same weekend that you will be, playing a small noonday recital at a church, and I plan to hear you perform that evening.
If you still wish to meet in person, please let me know. I will print my email address at the bottom of this letter for your convenience.
Dear Frau Ebner,
I am please to learn that you will be in New York when we are there and will come to hear us. I would like to hear you, too! When and where are you playing?
Dear Herr Haselbock,
Thank you for your interest. I will give you the information, but please do not go out of your way. The concert is a modest, noonday affair.
She pasted the information for the concert on the bottom of the email and sent it off.
The morning after she arrived in New York, she dressed for the concert, had breakfast, and walked to the church where she was performing.
She had played there before and knew the instrument. After touching up the tuning, she ran through the program. She found a corner in the narthex to sit in before the concert. She had a snack and read the newspaper.
“Excuse me,” a man said, “is this the place to hear the harpsichord recital?”
Noting the accent, she looked up, “Herr Haselbock?”
“Frau Ebner!” She stood, and they shook hands. “Yes,” he said, “I can see you are of Austrian heritage. I am glad to be here.”
“It is a modest performance.”
“I am looking forward to it.”
The modest program was modestly attended. A few people greeted her afterwards and asked questions.
“I have to get back for a rehearsal,” he said after others had left, “but maybe you can come to the stage door after the concert.”
They met at the stage door and walked to his hotel, talking about the concert and the audience.
“Have you ever performed in Europe?”
“Only in the UK.”
“Not the Continent?”
“If I could arrange
something in Austria,
would you come?”
“Yes, if my schedule permits.”
“What looks good?”
“I don’t have anything for October yet.”
“Let me see what I can do. I will email you when I return.”
An email arrived a week later.
Dear Frau Ebner,
There is a cultural exchange organization that I am a member of. We would like to sponsor you for a concert in October. Can you come?
Dear Herr Haselbock,
Thank you for this opportunity. Would it be possible for me to arrive on a Thursday and leave the following Monday? For accommodations, I simply like to be within walking distance of the performance site. I look forward to hearing from you.
Dear Frau Ebner,
These requests are not a problem. I will be in touch with the details. Stefan Haselbock
In October she flew form her city in the Midwest to Austria. He was waiting at the airport for her.
“Herr Haselbock! It is good to be here.”
“How was your flight?”
He escorted her through the airport to his car.
“While we drive, we can review the plan for the weekend.”
The next day she rehearsed in the morning, and he had a rehearsal in the afternoon. Their plan was to meet at the stage door after his evening concert. They walked a few blocks, talking about the highlights of the concert.
“Frau Ebner, let me walk you back to where you are staying.”
“Herr Haselbock, I can find my own way. You have a family to get home to.”
“My son is with his mother this weekend.” They walked in silence for a few steps.”
“I’m sorry,” she said after a half a block.
“Well, Frau Ebner, I should also say sorry. You are here alone. I remember the dedication on your cd. How did he die? No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask.”
“Herr Haselbock, I think we are becoming friends; you may ask me what you wish.”
“Then please call me Stefan.”
“If you will call me Anna. He died of cancer. It all went quite quickly.”
“Did he die at home?”
“Yes. A friend of his helped, and we had nurses.”
“How long ago?”
“Thank you.” They walked the rest of the way in silence.
“Thank you for the walk to my room.”
They smiled and clasped hands.
“Tomorrow’s plan: a walk in the woods.”
He picked her up from practicing at 11:00, and they drove to a place outside the city.
“I live so near, but I never get here – too little time.”
The weather was pleasant, and they talked about the things new friends talk about. They discovered that they were both only children. He was ten years older than she. They talked about his son, a budding violinist.
For lunch they stopped in a sunny spot, spread out a cloth, and got out the lunches they had each packed for themselves. She eyed his lentil soup, dark bread, and two apples.
“My housekeeper makes the best lentil soup.”
“Makes things easier.”
“You eat such a healthy diet.”
“I need to.”
“Four years ago the doctor found some cancer. It was found early, so things may be okay. But I have my son, and I want to do what I can to maintain my health.”
“What kind of cancer?”
“I don’t know the English. It is for men, a small thing—“
“If it was caught early, you probably had the surgery.”
“Was that before or after your marriage ended?”
“It is what ended it.” She looked up, waiting for more. “Well, I can tell you as we are now friends. She was already unhappy. She said I was married to the orchestra. I thought she knew what it would be like—“
“She did, Stefan; she just didn’t know how hard it would be to endure year after year.”
“I never thought of that. Well, maybe. Then the surgery happened. Very painful, and well, can ruin things –“
“Well, yes. But I was back with the orchestra within a week. To be there was the best pain medicine. Maybe you know what I mean.”
“And she said I had not been a husband, and now I was not even a man.”
She reached out and touched his arm and shook her head, “I’m sorry.”
He looked at her for a few moments, “Is there more to your story than just your husband’s death?”
She nodded and gave him a few details. They sat in silence.
“Do you see anyone now?”
She laughed, “Stefan, I am a middle aged woman with a broken heart. No one stands in line for that. And you?”
“No, no. I too have a broken heart and a broken body, and I would not want to disappoint another woman with the life that I lead as a musician.”
“It is not easy – maybe not even possible – for a non-musician to understand.”
“Understand, yes. That makes me think it is time to bring up an idea I had last night.”
“We make a good pair.”
“Haven’t we had some nice conversations? We have some things in common –“
“Stefan, we live thousands of miles apart. I am a foreigner.”
She began to pick up things from their lunch.
“It is so easy to stay in touch these days. And we will be back in North America in March – New York and Toronto. Have you been to Toronto?”
“And maybe you could come to perform here again. Your family comes from Tyrol, no? We could make a day trip there.”
She began folding the cloth.
“I’m jumping ahead, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” she said, laughing. She looked around to see if there was anything else to clean up.
“Anna, I’m sorry. What is the word? Presuming?”
“Well, Stefan, you are presuming,” and then she put her arms around him, “but I would like to take this adventure with you.”
The next morning she attended a Catholic Mass near her pension. It was all in German, and she decided that she should brush up on her language skills. She went back to her room after to have some lunch and prepare herself for her concert.
She walked to the performance site, ran through the program, and then went to sit outside in the autumn sun. She had a snack and began reading a local newspaper. A shadow crossed the newspaper.
“Stefan,” she said, extending her hand, “Come keep me company.”
“Anna,” and he bent down to kiss her check. The talked about his concert the night before and her decision to brush up on her German skills.
“What time do you need to go in for your concert?”
“Oh, I have twenty minutes. I was thinking about our time yesterday. You said they caught the cancer early. Is it okay now?”
“They check my blood three times a year, and, so far, the numbers have been good.”
“Are you ever afraid?”
“Sometimes, especially as a father.”
“Are you and your son close?”
“We are. I try to be careful because I don’t want him to feel distance from his mother.”
“Do you have a picture?”
Out of his wallet he produced a recent picture of himself with a young man about seventeen, both playing the violin.
“Yes, we practice together once a week.”
She looked at her watch.
“I’d better go in.”
She ended the concert with a triumphant fugue by Bach. There were polite greetings after the concert, and then it was time to go.
The warm October day had turned into a crisp evening, and he offered her his arm as they walked back to her pension. They talked about her concert and other pieces in her repertoire. He suggested that they perform together some time.
“I was thinking about that last night. I’ve always wanted to do the Biber sonatas. They work well with piano or harpsichord.”
“You play piano, too?”
“Oh, sure, and some organ, but, in the end, my main instrument is harpsichord.”
“You know, I make up a lot of answers to that question to satisfy people, but I’ll tell you the truth: I really don’t know why harpsichord is my main instrument. I don’t love listening to harpsichord music any more than I love listening to orchestral or chamber music. For me, harpsichord is like the angel sent down the ladder for Jacob to wrestle with.”
“Wrestle? Not dance?”
“Oh, it is all sweetness and light for you? Why did you choose violin?”
“My father played violin.”
“This is where I am an American, and you are a European.”
“You don’t hear that in America – ‘My father played violin, so I play violin.’ Both of my parents come from farming families. Would I be a harpsichord soloist if I had been born in Europe?”
He frowned, “Maybe we have big differences.”
“Oh, Stefan, it is always a trapeze act.”
“Trapeze is what they do in a circus.” She released his arm and held her hands in the air, “One person leaps through the air with the hope of catching on to the other.” They had arrived at her door. “Thank you, Stefan. I’ll see you tomorrow morning for a ride to the airport?”
“That’s the plan.”
When he picked her up the next morning to take her to the airport, he handed her a typed sheet of paper with home address, various phone numbers, and a concert schedule for the next six months. He chattered on about how this could all work, and she listened, taking in the sights of his city for the last time.
He parked the car and walked her into the airport and kissed her goodbye.
It began. There were the daily emails: Where are you? What are you playing? How are you? Every other Sunday, he called her.
She continued to study German and was able to add more and more of it to their conversations and letters. She also planned trips and concerts: New York and Toronto in March, October in Austria.
The phone rang very early one Saturday morning in February.
“Stefan! Are you okay? You are calling on a Saturday.”
“My stand partner says he hears America in my playing.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“I didn’t ask. We need a plan.”
“Do you have a plan?”
“Part of one, but I need to talk with you.”
“Where will you stay?”
“Well,” he said, “I think you should stay with me.”
She still didn’t say anything.
“I haven’t been in the same bedroom with someone in over seven years.”
“Almost that long for me, too.”
“Stefan, I’m afraid.”
“I’m afraid, too.”
They didn’t say anything.
“How about a plan?” he said.
“We’ll make our own way.”
March came in like a lamb that year, and the daffodils and forsythia bloomed in Central Park earlier than usual. She arrived in New York on Friday. Once at the hotel, she picked up the keys and went to the room. There was a note on the door:
AE – at lunch – SH
She took a pen out of her purse and crossed out the note and wrote, “I’m here” She went in the room and began setting things out for the next few days. The doorknob clicked.
They spent the better half of that afternoon walking through Central Park. About 4:00, they made their way to Broadway where they bought some take out food at a deli and sat outside of Lincoln Center to eat and watch the people go by.
Back at the hotel, he changed for his concert while she read the newspaper. She would see him back stage after the concert.
He was waiting for her.
“I found out that there is a reception I should attend. Would you like to join me?”
She met many other orchestra members at the reception and shook hands with various patrons. She had to practice in the morning, so they left the reception early.
“You do well at receptions,” he said as they walked to the elevator.
“My husband was the director of our city’s art museum, so I had to attend a lot of events like this.”
“Art museum director? He must have left you well situated.”
“I wasn’t the only one in the will.”
“Oh, yes. I’m sorry.”
“It has all worked
”You must have been an asset to your husband.”
“Well, I wasn’t the ornament that would have been really helpful but being a harpsichord soloist was exotic enough to be interesting.”
“The beautiful woman on an influential man’s arm.”
He touched her hair, which she always wore pinned up, brown and silver strands straying at the side.
He heard the alarm go off and watched her get up. She made tea, got out some crackers, and sat with her prayer book open while she ate and drank. Then she came over to his side of the bed. He reached out his hand.
“Stefan. Did you sleep?”
“Yes. I’m going to get dressed and take a walk. I’ll bring a newspaper back with me. Do you want anything?”
“No, I’ll order breakfast for up here.”
The next days were a whirlwind – her rehearsal, his concert, another reception. After church Sunday morning, the each parted for their separate performances. Monday morning they boarded a plane for Toronto where they would each rehearse and perform again.
Tuesday night was their fifth and final night together.
“I want to know the woman I love.”
It would be almost seven months until they saw each other in person. Their plan was the same, except that now he called every week.
That spring and summer he was unusually busy with concerts and touring and recording. His son’s professional career was also beginning, and he spent time with this as well.
Her spring and summer were busy in different ways. Her mother was ill and needed attention. Her husband’s young lover also began calling, wanting to know more about their life together.
“Well, Stefan, at least all these things make the time go faster,” she told him on the phone as they planned her next trip to visit him in Austria.
The plan was similar to the year before – time for practicing and performing and also hearing his orchestra. She would stay two days longer this time, so they could travel to Tyrol and see the part of the country her family was from. She arrived on a Thursday afternoon, and he was available to pick her up at the airport. This time she stayed with him at his flat.
The phone rang as they were finishing lunch on Friday, and she began cleaning up the kitchen while he went to answer it.
“Yes?” When he didn’t answer, she turned toward him, “Stefan?”
“That was the doctor. The results from the blood test I had last week just came in. The number is so high that they immediately want to do more tests. I told him I could do it Wednesday because of our trip.”
She thought for a moment.
“No. Please call him back. Please tell him you will be available on Monday for the tests. I want to go with you.”
From Friday afternoon until Monday morning, they were never completely apart. She sat back stage during his rehearsals and concerts; he went with her while she prepared for hers. He joined her on her morning walks. They went to church together on Sunday morning.
The first test on Monday was early, and he was not to eat before hand. She packed food for the both of them.
There were only scans and ultra-sounds ordered. The doctor said that the numbers from the blood test were grim enough, and he wanted to avoid unnecessary pain and invasion.
She accompanied him to every test
The tests were completed by 11:30, and they were to meet the doctor at 1:00 for the results. Over tea and coffee, they ate the lunch she had prepared.
“Are you hungry?”
“Eat anyway,” she replied, touching his hair.
The doctor shook his head. The cancer was everywhere except the brain. The doctor gave him three to six months to live, with the shorter time frame being the more likely scenario. Exhaustion would be the first symptom followed by nausea and then pain.
“I don’t have any appointments in here until mid-afternoon. Please feel free to stay in here awhile; I will make sure no one disturbs you,” and he left.
They had been sitting side by side on the couch. Now she turned toward him.
“Anna, I’m sorry.”
“I think we need a plan”
They had a day and a half. First, they looked at a calendar. He would come to the States for a weekend in early November. She would meet them in London in early December. That was all they felt safe in planning as far as dates were concerned. He would call her twice a week. Then he called the manager of the orchestra. He and his son practiced together once a week; he would tell him then.
Planning did not take very much time, and they had a full day and a half. They walked all over the city, and he showed her places from his past. The looked at photo albums, old school papers, letters from dead relatives. They played duets on the piano and listened to music, drove once again to the woods. They spread out a cloth in the sun and lay on their backs watching the clouds float by. They ate together, bathed together, and only slept a few hours.
“I can sleep on the plane.”
“Are you tired?”
“What is it that you are afraid of?”
“I’m afraid of life being over. I think, ‘That’s all. Can’t go back and correct anything. Can’t add anything. What have I done? What haven’t I done?’ I think how I disappointed – you could even say I abandoned – my wife, created a broken home for my son. For what? Was it worth it? I fall in love with you. You know, I was even beginning to have thoughts of asking you to move here. You are like a day in June – the sort of day you walk outside without a jacket on and feel nothing, free to feel the air go in and out of your lungs, free to see what is around you, to hear what is around you because there is no struggle. And what is your reward for being this gift? Watching another man you love die? The words ‘not enough’ end every thought and memory I have—“
“Stefan,” she clasped his shoulders, “Stefan, ‘not enough’ are two of the devil’s favorite words.”
He put his head to her chest and cried.
At the airport the next morning, they bid farewell.
She let go of his hands and walked away. Then she stopped. There was so much noise. Everyone was moving so quickly.
“Stefan?” she called, looking back. She couldn’t see him. There were so many people. “Stefan?”
“What, Anna?” He hadn’t been that far away. He looked down at her. She put her hand on his chest and then walked away.
Three and a half weeks later, she met him at the airport in her small, Mid-Western city. They took a city bus to her house.
“I never saw neighborhoods like this on tour,” he said, watching out the window, “and I did always want to see the inside of an American home.”
She lived in a small house in a working class neighborhood that she bought after her husband’s death. The modest price of the home freed her up to make more authentic artistic decisions, and it was a relief, too, not to have to maintain the art museum director’s home anymore.
She opened the door for him. “I’m glad you’re here, Stefan.”
She showed him around her neighborhood. The nausea had begun, so she cooked him soup, cut up bananas in yogurt, and made him tea. They spent the evening looking at photo albums.
On Saturday morning, they got up while it was still dark. She made oatmeal and tea for both of them and read Morning Prayer out loud. Then they walked fifteen minutes East to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan. Then they took an hour-long bus ride to a Western suburb to the apartment of her mother and ninety-nine year old maternal grandmother.
They knew about him and also of his illness. He brought his violin and played some Austrian folk songs. The conversation was both in English and German. After a lunch, there was picture taking: Anna and Stefan on the couch, another picture with her grandmother between them. Then they called a neighbor from across the hall who took a picture of the four of them together.
He napped most of the way home on the bus, and she rested on her side, facing him and watching him.
At his request, they repeated their visit to the lake to watch the sun rise.
It was Sunday. She attended a small Episcopal church in her neighborhood. From time to time, she helped out by playing the organ or piano. Some times, a couple of parishioners would help her bring her harpsichord to the church.
She had arranged for the two of them to play on this particular Sunday. They arrived early to run through one of the Biber sonatas that they both enjoyed. They played this piece for the prelude, and he played some unaccompanied solos by Bach during communion.
After the service, she lead him into the basement for coffee hour. She was one of the younger members of the congregation. They knew of her foreign love and his illness. The older women fussed over him, and the men offered hand shakes. She had never really noticed his accent until then.
They napped in the afternoon and took one more walk by the lake. In the evening, they played four hand arrangements of Brahms symphonies on the piano.
“You have a nice life here.”
“I can see now what a change it would have been for you to move.”
“I thought about that.”
“Would you have?”
“Come to live with you? Maybe. What was harder to imagine than the change was wondering what I would do with my independence and solitude.”
“I think two people who have managed an international love affair could have figured something out.”
“Could have—“ and they were silent. She shook her head and cried for the first time.
Three weeks later, she flew to London to meet him. Her flight arrived three hours earlier than his. She waited by the gate for his airplane. All the orchestra members filed out; he was one of the last ones. In three weeks he had gone from looking tired to looking sick.
Another orchestra member offered to carry his bag, so that with one hand, he could carry his violin, leaving the other hand free to hold hers.
It was Friday. The orchestra would rehearse on Saturday and perform Saturday and Sunday evening. She had no performance of her own. She planned on accompanying him to his rehearsal and concerts, sitting backstage. He had relinquished the role of concertmaster and now sat on the last stand of the first violins.
They went to the reception after the Saturday night performance, sitting near the entrance, sipping tea.
They went to church Sunday morning, sitting in the back pew. When the usher came to beckon them to communion, she shook her head. The usher’s eyes went past her to her companion. Nodding, he moved on.
He came to her right after Sunday’s performance ended saying that it would be better if they didn’t attend the reception.
When they entered their room, he immediately went into the bathroom and began wretching. She followed, wetting a washcloth and pressing it to his forehead. She gave him a glass of water to rinse out his mouth. They sat together on the bathroom floor, leaning against the wall.
“We need to make a plan.”
They dispensed with letters and talked on the phone each day for five to ten minutes.
In late December, the phone rang. It was his son.
“Frau Ebner, it is time.”
He had spent a large amount of money to arrange for her to fly on the spur of the moment. When she questioned this, he said, “I have only my son, and he will be well provided for.” She accepted.
Within thirty-six hours, she was in Austria. A member of the orchestra picked her up and took her to him.
She took his hand and held it to her face.
“Anna. Thank you for coming.”
“It was part of the plan. Thank you for waiting.”
“Also part of the plan.”
“We need a plan, and I’ve come up with one.”
She pushed the hair off of his forehead. “What is it?”
“You must take very good care of the woman I love.”
“Yes, Stefan. Yes, I will.”
“I’m glad you are here, Anna.”
She laid her head on his chest, and a little while later he died.
Two weeks after she returned home, the priest from her church called.
“Anna, are you busy?”
“Can you walk over to the church? I don’t think this will take long.”
She walked to the church. In the sanctuary was a large crate, partially opened to reveal a harpsichord. There was also an envelope and a small box.
This was my mother’s harpsichord. When I visited your church, I saw that it would fit nicely and probably sound good, too.
There are some artifacts in the box for you and some legal documents for the transfer of money. I want you to be able to travel to hear the orchestra and to be able to visit my son.
If someone would have told me that the twists and turns of my life would have lead me to love a woman on a different continent, I would have dismissed the thought. You were a gift from God sent to me at the end of my life.
Please stay in touch with my son, and every day, Anna, take care of the woman I love.
In the box was his mother’s copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier and pictures – of him, of his son, and of his orchestra.
Nine months later, her second recording was completed – selections from the Well-Tempered Clavier performed on his mother’s harpsichord in her church.
“This recording is dedicated to violinist Stefan Haselbock in fulfillment of his last request.”
It was nearly Christmas, and there was a snowstorm of historic proportions in New York City. Two feet had fallen in half a day. Had she known it was going to be that bad, she wouldn’t have left her apartment. It was enough of a challenge to negotiate the sidewalks and streets in the best of weather, not because she was unused to them – she had lived in New York for almost fifty years – but because of her physical condition.
But, out she had gone to buy some staples – some bread and crackers and cheese from the Italian grocers on Broadway, some English tea at one of these new places run by very young people. She laughed when she thought of this – very young people. Maybe they were in their mid to late twenties. What was she doing when she was their age?
The snow was deep and heavy, hard to pull her legs through. She felt afraid of the curb. Where was it? What if she slipped? Would she have the strength to pull herself up? How sore would she be? How much harder would it be after that to summon the courage to walk the remaining few blocks?
She walked into the shop where she bought tea. As always, these places had music playing and, at this time of year, everybody had their holiday music out. The Nutcracker was playing, and hearing this didn’t help her mood or her courage.
What a time of year this was in the theater: you never left. The musicians called it The Nut Scratcher. The board of directors wanted it scheduled every season because it paid the bills for the whole year. The fake snow on the stage floor caused spills and injuries and seemed to be everywhere, even in her ears and under her fingernails. But she loved it. She loved it so much that she didn’t really know that she loved it.
Kirsten Larsen had come from a small Norwegian town in Western Wisconsin. There was a little ballet school that she attended because her parents thought she was clumsy. One day, when she was eleven, some scouts came from a New York ballet school seeking talent. They had a cosmopolitan air about them, wore interesting clothes and strong perfume. She didn’t know why they were there; she just danced class like she always did. But they pointed at her and asked her to stay after. They bent her feet and lifted her leg. They hummed and asked her to keep time.
Later the phone rang, and her mother had a quiet discussion afterwards with her father. The next morning at breakfast, they asked her if she might want to try a summer camp for ballet. Well, sure, she thought. Dance was what she did. The next eleven years unrolled before her, and she thought not one thing of it. She went to the camp; then she went to the school full time, living in New York City, away from her small town. By the time she was seventeen, she was in the company, and by the time she was eighteen, she was a soloist.
They would give a barre or set a dance, and she would do it. If her leg needed to be higher, she thought, I can do that, and did it. Whatever they asked, she did because she knew she could do it.
A new choreographer came to work with the company when she was twenty, and he immediately began to make solos for her. He was foreign, well known, and about fifteen years older than she was. He was smart and a very good dancer, and she enjoyed the challenge of meeting his expectations.
There is nothing new about the story of a choreographer becoming involved with or even marrying a lead dancer, and this is what happened to her. They married when she was twenty-one. They bought an apartment on the Upper West Side and settled into a life together.
As she listened to the Nutcracker playing over the speaker, she tried to think how many years it had been since she danced it. She began dancing it at seventeen. Her husband did a new setting of it when she was twenty-four. That was forty-one years ago. She tried to remember what it was like dancing that, working with him, the whole package. It was so beautiful, she thought. It wasn’t the dance or the music or the romance that was beautiful. There wasn’t really any romance because all they did was work. And the dance was so much a part of who she had always been, that that wasn’t what made it beautiful. What made it beautiful was the complete giving. When else in her life had she been so uncalculating? Now, even walking three blocks to buy tea required summoning courage, asking herself, “do I really need to go? Can I go? What happens if…?”
Dancers aren’t dancers forever, and her career ended at age forty. That really isn’t a bad run, she told herself. But it ended fast and hard. She just couldn’t do it any more. Her joints and muscles ached. She was constantly tired as if her body was filled with wet concrete. Then her husband found another dancers to set dances on, and, no surprise here, he left her for a younger star
The financial settlement when the marriage ended allowed her to remain in their apartment with an allowance of money each month. Her standard of living changed, but she had nothing to spend money on, either. For the first nine months or so, she did nothing except rest, walk two or three blocks for provisions, and pay the necessary bills.
The snowstorm began to interrupt her reverie. She only had two more blocks to walk, but she felt spent. Spent: it was a word she had never considered, and it was now part of her daily life, writ small, writ large. Spent after walking to buy tea, spent after picking up some pins that fell on the floor. Seeing some young women pass her, she felt spent in other ways – lacking their vigor, lacking their appeal, and needing, unlike them, to calculate every move.
Her energy at that moment was spent, so, as she turned off of Broadway on 113th, where she lived, she leaned against the steps of an apartment building on the corner. She lived nearer to Riverside, and negotiating the relatively steep downhill in the snow with her packages was something she needed to ponder.
Uncalculated: that word was the only thing that connected the two halves of her life. Remembering this, as she did now and then, kept her from the despair that threatened her mental stability. The first time it occurred to her was at an interview while they were on tour. It was the height of her dancing, and her marriage was an established fact by then. A reporter interviewed her in the lobby of a hotel. They didn’t have much time. She had an appointment with the masseuse who traveled with them and then had to dress for the performance. The masseuse, a young woman from Ukraine, waited nearby during the interview. The reporter asked, “Is this the fulfillment of your wildest dreams?” She had never dreamt of this life. It came; she accepted. The reporter grew impatient and restated the question. She pointed to the orchid potted a few feet away, “The orchid didn’t dream of being an orchid. It is what it is, and it has done what it was meant to do. I have to go now. Thank you.”
While walking back to her room, her masseuse said she had something to show her. Out of her purse, she produced a small travel icon with a picture of the Annunciation. “Your answer is like Mary’s, ‘ Be it unto me according to your word.’” Kirsten Larsen grew up as a Lutheran in her small Norwegian community. She hadn’t attended church since she left home, not because of any dispute but simply because the life she lived consumed all her time. The icon was fascinating to her. During the massage, she asked Rita, the masseuse, if she had other icons. “I will bring a book that I have. You can keep it for awhile, if you wish.”
Kirsten gazed at the pictures in the book. She remembered her Sunday school classes and the Bible stories represented in these icons. The depictions of these stories and characters as icons, however, communicated something to her that she had not considered. They were not of a past time but of a different time, as if they were always alive and living out these stories, independent of our world and chronology.
When her marriage and career ended, she bought a large book of icons. Every night before sleeping, she would page through this book. It was such a dark time: she rested most of the day on the couch, listening to radio shows or books on tape that she found at the library just, thankfully, one block away. Each day she tried to walk a block or two – to the library or to buy some provisions – but this was all she could manage. This lasted for about nine months. Then, one day, while crossing Broadway at 112th Street, she saw The Cathedral of St. John the Divine one block East of Broadway on Amsterdam. Without any forethought or calculation, she walked the extra block and crossed the street. The steps were daunting, and she stood and stared at them. A driver from one of the tour buses that was parked in front saw her and offered to help her up the steps. He nearly carried her, and she thanked him.
When she walked in, the first thing she saw was two large icons, one of Jesus and one of Mary the Mother of God with Jesus. She immediately asked the young man in the guard’s booth about services. She hadn’t been to church in over twenty-five years and certainly not an Episcopal Church. He gave her a brochure. She asked about the difference between the services. The earliest on Sunday morning had no music and was in a chapel. Though she would miss hearing some music, she thought something in a small space would be better.
The following Sunday, she attended the 8:00 Mass at the Cathedral. She did this for four weeks in a row. Then she began to also to go to the daily Mass at 8:30 in the morning. There were regulars at these services, and, slowly, she began to know them. When asked her name, she would always say “Kirsten,” avoiding her last name that would invariably bring up her past.
She was a part of these services in the same way she looked at the icons in her book each night: just open. She was not seeking or desiring anything. She just opened herself up to the readings and the rhythm of the liturgy and the images in the icons. She trusted that there was a power to all of these that was beyond her wanting. They would do what they were supposed to do, and that was enough.
One Sunday, the bulletin had an announcement asking for people to volunteer to help mend vestments. She had done plenty of sowing of ribbons on ballet slippers. She approached the priest afterwards, saying that if someone could deliver the vestments and supplies to her apartment, she was available. The first vestments arrived that week, and she set herself to work. She found that she was quite good at this, even fixing embroidery and the more intricate aspects of the vestments. The word got out among the Episcopal Churches, and she began to spend about two to three hours a day mending and sewing – all by hand. She enjoyed the quietness and also being able to do something physical again. The sound of the needle poking the fabric, the final product shining before her – these gave her a satisfaction she had not felt in years. She sometimes thought she felt more satisfied with this than she had ever felt in her dancing years. She took dancing and, for that matter, life for granted back then. Now, every opportunity was an orb of gold.
She thought she really had to make it back to her apartment. The snow was accumulating and soon the sun would be going down. She heard some French being spoken. On the corner, waiting to cross the street was that young woman who had always lived in her apartment building. Young: maybe fifteen years younger than Kirsten. But she had been a young girl when Kirsten moved into the building with her husband and had always retained an innocent, waif-like quality. Kirsten had never spoken with her. She remembered the family being insular and very quiet. The man she was with looked familiar. Oh, yes, he was the Super in the building for a while and then was gone. He had the build of a peasant she thought, not too tall, thick legs and broad shoulders. He was also speaking in French. He noticed Kirsten sitting on the steps.
“Do you need some help with those bags in the snow?” he asked Kirsten. “I think you live in Henrietta’s building.”
“I would appreciate the help.” The younger couple each took a bag, and the young man offered her his arm.
“I’m Nic. I was the Super in your building at one time.”
“Yes, I recognize you. And you are Henrietta. We have seen each other off and on for decades, and now we meet.”
Henrietta smiled back in response, “May I ask your name?”
“Kirsten.” there was the typical look of recognition in her eyes that Kirsten had seen in many people’s eyes, “My parents told me the ballet dancer I enjoyed watching, whose first name was Kirsten, lived in our building. Would that be you?” Kirsten nodded and looked ahead. Henrietta seemed to understand and dropped the topic.
“Quite a snow, eh?” Nic continued. He seemed to be a bit of a prattler. “We usually go to Evensong at St. Thomas on Tuesdays, but even that was cancelled. We’ve had a nice walk back, though. We were thinking about making some hot cider. Henrietta, do you think you have enough to offer some to Kirsten?”
“Yes. Would you join us, Kirsten?”
She said yes. Outside of going to church, she hadn’t been social since her marriage ended, partially out of physical exhaustion and limitation, partially out of weariness of years of smiling and nodding at strangers who thought they knew her because they had seen her dance. Once she heard a poem on the radio by Yeats. There was a line she scribbled down right after she heard it, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Looking back, she didn’t even know the dancer from the dance.
“Should we stop at your apartment first,” Nic asked.
“No, there’s nothing that needs to be refrigerated.”
Henrietta’s apartment was on the sixth floor and had a view of Riverside Park. It had an old feeling, the furnishings and rugs, and a cared for feeling – clean and intentional, she thought. Three cats, two quite old and one very young, were perched around the main room. Nic motioned to a stuffed chair that she gratefully sat down in. One of the older cats climbed onto her lap.
“That’s Pitch, as in pitch black,” Nic offered. “He loves women.”
“Is anyone hungry? Should I put out something to eat?” Henrietta called out from the kitchen.
“I have some crackers and cheese from the Italian grocery in my bag,” answered Kirsten. Where had that come from? Even in her social years, she was never the one to prepare the food.
“Which bag?” Nic asked, and she pointed to the one on the right. She watched Nic and Henrietta in the kitchen, noting their ease in each other’s presence – not an erotic ease, she thought, a human ease.
They emerged from the kitchen with trays of mugs filled with hot cider, bowls of almonds and pickled mushrooms, and a plate of her cheese and crackers. Nic talked about the snow cutting short the delivery of some necessary parts for an organ that the church wanted finished by Christmas. Henrietta had stories about the donation of some Soviet era ‘Christmas’ cards that gave everyone at the library a good chuckle. Kirsten listened and petted the cat and enjoyed having a meal with company. Henrietta paused.
“How was your day, Kirsten?” Answering such a question takes practice, was her first thought. She petted the cat and look at these very new friends.
”I’ve been mending vestments.”
”Liturgical?” asked Nic. They both looked at her and waited. Despite their age difference and probably big differences in their upbringing, they both shared a quality of curiosity that was endearing to her.
“Yes. It is something I’ve come to at this time in life, quite by accident.” Since it seemed that their odd pairing was most likely the result of some sort of accident, they seemed unmoved by this.
“Would you tell us?” Henrietta asked, and told them she did, enunciated more sentences in a row than she may ever have done in her life. She was raised in a quiet Norwegian household and then became a dancer – does anyone really even want a long answer from a ballerina? And then she married a choreographer who was expected and met the expectation of doing all the talking, and then she was alone. The cider and the bits of food, the warm cat, this odd pair with their curious eyes, the quiet that descends on the city in a snow storm – they all worked as a balm, her entire being relaxing as it had not, maybe in her whole life. Was it the particulars, she thought, or was there something else?
“Are you a member of the Cathedral?” asked Henrietta.
“I am, too, but I’ve never seen you. But, I go to the 9:30 service. It has music but not too many people.”
“I go to the 8:00 because it is in a side chapel – a little easier for movement. Funny, I thought maybe you were members of St. Thomas because you talked about missing Evensong there.”
“We go just on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Have you been?”
“No. It is too far and such a busy part of town.”
Nic and Henrietta looked at each other. Henrietta seemed to be able to talk with her eyes. Nic nodded in ascent.
“We both come from work on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but this Sunday, the choir is doing Lessons and Carols. We planned to go. Will you come with us?”
Again, she said yes, and they made plans and exchanged phone numbers. Nic announced he had to get home which wasn’t going to be easy in the snow, and he had an early morning. He offered to help Kirsten to her apartment, and she accepted.
That Sunday, Nic came to her apartment to pick her up, and Henrietta was waiting in front with a cab they had ordered. The snow from earlier in the week had melted off the sidewalks, but Nic asked the driver to take them down along Riverside Park and then to cross town through Central Park because the trees were still decorated with beautiful clumps of snow. The cab let them out on 53rd Street.
“We can go in the office entrance,” said Henrietta, “There is an elevator that will take us to the Sanctuary, so we can avoid most of the steps, and I have places saved for us near the front.” She wondered how Henrietta managed this. Later she learned that Henrietta was quite known in this church.
The office area and hallways were bustling with pre-service activity. Henrietta spotted the Rector.
“Father, do you have just a moment? I’d like to introduce you to the neighbor I told you about. Father, this is Kirsten Larsen, my neighbor and our new friend.”
He took her hand, “Ms. Larsen, your name has come up three times this week in three different ways.”
brought back some vestments that you mended, and my wife and I were at the
ballet this week. We were remembering
Clara of the Nutcracker as danced by a Miss Kirsten Larsen, but we couldn’t
remember how long ago…”
”I danced her forty-five years ago.”
“And then Henrietta asked if we could save a place for you this afternoon, so you didn’t have so many steps to negotiate. It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
“It is good to be here. Thank you for taking the time to greet me.”
Nic, Henrietta, and Kirsten on the elevator to the Sanctuary and entered, going past the organ console, down three short steps, and to the place Henrietta and Nic usually sat for Evensong. Nic went into the pew first, helping Kirsten, and Henrietta sat on the other side of her. The organ prelude stopped, and, after a moment of silence, a lone boy began singing, “Once in Royal David’s City”. She looked around, and to her right she saw a large icon of Jesus the Teacher. As the hymn continued and procession went by, she kept her eyes fixed on his face, feeling the arms of both Nic and Henrietta touching hers.
They sat and stood at various times, singing hymns, listening to the choir, listening to the readings. She noticed the vestments that were just in her apartment a few days ago, and she shook her head as she watched those boys sing such complicated music and such a goodly amount of it. She didn’t shake her head because she was amazed; she shook it because she understood what they were doing. Someone said to those boys, “Sing this,” and they did it.
The seventh reading began. The angel Gabriel announces to Mary what is about to happen to her, and Mary answers, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Kirsten looked again at the icon of Jesus and asked him if she would ever stop learning all that this meant. And she thanked him for this sentence. It challenged her, and it also healed her.
6. In the Body
The college art museum that had hosted an exhibit of 19th century secular art from Russia was preparing the exhibit to be shipped to Moscow, and she was in the office that afternoon helping with the correspondence. The art director was on the phone in the same room, ending a conversation.
“This will be held in Milwaukee in November? Milwaukee -- could you spell that?”
Her ears perked up. Milwaukee was not a city that came up in many conversations.
“Katya, I’m glad you’re here. There is an academic group of American Slovaks that is planning a convention in conjunction with the opening of an exhibit of icons at a Roman Catholic college in Milwaukee. Have you ever heard of that place? It is somewhere in the Midwest of the U.S.”
By this time, Katya Newman had lived in Oxford, England for over ten years, and, with her Russian accent, most people didn’t know that she had been adopted and raised in the States. Her parents were Russian Scholars who taught in Milwaukee.
“They are borrowing our collection of icons and would like a representative to introduce it, preferably someone who could do so in Russian. Would you be willing to go?”
There were things to prepare, and the few months she had before the trip went by quickly. She had to prepare the talk, get her passport in order. She hadn’t traveled in eight years. She went back twice a year at first, but then she was sick – ovarian cancer – and the treatments made travel unadvisable, so much so that, when both her parents died within a month of each other, she, their only child, was unable to make the overseas flight to attend the funerals.
On a Thursday morning, Sergei, a young man who was her closest friend, and his adoptive parents drove her the bus station and waited with her until the bus left. He was somewhat agoraphobic and, until this time, she had never quite understood this aspect of his personality. But as the bus pulled out of the station and headed out of Oxford, a town she had rarely left in the past eight years, she had a better understanding.
The bus dropped her off at Gatwick where the ticket lines were looping around the counters and the security lines a jumbled mess of people and luggage and languages. She felt short and out of her element, and being the bearer of a British passport and having a Russian accent didn’t make the process any easier. The gate area for the U.S. carrier she was to fly on was grim, and the Americans waiting for the flight with her seemed big, loud, and sloppy.
But the flight went smoothly enough. She landed in Minneapolis, made it through the blessedly friendly, well-run immigration lines, and then boarded another airplane to fly to Milwaukee. The president of the American Slovak association sponsoring the event, a woman who looked barely thirty, met her at the airport to take her to the place she was staying. She chattered away in Russian about the events of the weekend. Katya listened and looked out the window at the sights of her youth.
The Roman Catholic college hosting the exhibit and the convention was on the South Side of Milwaukee on the shore of Lake Michigan and near the neighborhood Katya lived in with her parents. Most university professors lived closer to the University, north of the downtown, but this neighborhood had a small population of Russian immigrants, making it a good place for them to use their language skills in daily life and a way for Katya, who they adopted in their 50’s, to stay in touch with her culture.
She didn’t have any responsibilities for a day and a half. It was an unusually warm November, and she made plans to spend a day walking around her old neighborhood. Some things had changed. The main commercial street in the neighborhood had become livelier, artistic types discovering the cheap rents. A certain Russian grocer had gone out of business. Well, it had been ten years. There was an addition put on the library. A movie theater that had been empty ten years ago now boasted of top art house films.
On the corner of one street was the office of the endocrinologist. Her mother was a lifelong, brittle diabetic, and the endocrinologist was more familiar to her than her parents’ siblings. Katya accompanied her mother to these appointments, first as a young girl who wasn’t old enough to be left alone, and later as a teenager who was able to assist her mother manage her blood sugar, packing graham crackers, reminding her mother to eat a little something or to check her blood sugar. The endocrinologist’s office was the first place she saw people afraid of their own bodies. People would enter the waiting room, check in, sit down, get out bags of snacks, check their watches, maybe have a bite or two, check their watches again. She would watch them, and, though she wished she could comfort them, she knew that that was impossible. Once the body betrayed a person, one never feels completely safe. She remembered this when she traversed her own illness when she was in her early thirties.
She looked at her watch. It was already 4:15, and she hadn’t had lunch. She had forgotten how international travel upsets one’s digestive system. She stopped at a coffee shop and bought some peppermint tea and continued her walk around her old neighborhood. She passed a very small church on a corner. It was an Episcopal Church. Her parents were Unitarians, and they had attended a Unitarian church near the University. She had converted to Anglicanism when she married and stayed in the Church of England after her marriage ended.
The signboard by the church entrance said that there was Evening Prayer at 5:00. She sat on the steps waiting for the doors to open, drinking the last of the peppermint tea and enjoying the afternoon sun. The door to the church was unlatched.
“Are you here for Evening Prayer?” the woman asked Katya.
“Yes.” Katya looked at this woman who was probably in her late forties. She was trim and smartly groomed. She had a friendly smile and sad eyes.
“Are you new in the neighborhood?”
“No, I’m visiting. There’s a conference at the Roman Catholic college a few blocks from here that I’m a part of.”
“Is that in connection with the icon exhibit?”
“Yes. I was asked by a group of American Slovaks to give the opening talk tomorrow.”
“Are you from Russia? I notice an accent.”
“I was born there, but I actually grew up in this neighborhood. I live in England now.”
“Let me introduce myself. My name is Anna Ebner.”
“Katya Newman.” They shook hands and went into the sanctuary.
“What a beautiful harpsichord! It looks old – too old for America.”
“It was the harpsichord of the mother of a dear friend of mine who was Austrian. He gave it to me when he died, almost two years ago now.”
Anna smiled in reply and pointed to the choir stalls.
“We can say Evening Prayer here. Since it is Friday, it may only be the two of us.”
When they were finished, Anna invited Katya to their Sunday Eucharist.
She fell asleep quickly that night and had vivid dreams of things she had not thought about in a long time. She dreamt of the orphanage in Siberia, the train trip with her new parents back to Moscow. She dreamt of seeing Milwaukee for the first time. She dreamt of making love to her husband and also of receiving the phone call that her mother had died. This is the order that things happened in real time, but in her dreams they were jumbled up – she was a child in Oxford and an adult in Siberia, her mother was with her at a church in England, her husband was in their small house near Lake Michigan.
She woke sweaty and with a very bad cramp in her abdomen. She shifted around in bed and was able to fall asleep again, once again dreaming in this mixed up fashion: her husband was in her Unitarian Sunday School Class; her father was with her while waiting for radiation treatments; she was giving talks at an art museum as a little girl. She felt lonely and confused and cried out for her friend, Sergei. Her voice calling for him out loud woke her up.
The clock said 6:30 a.m. She got up and prepared for a day of talks and socializing. There were talks early in the day that she was obligated to attend and then a lunch. Her presentation was right after lunch at the opening of the icon exhibit.
She was used to this sort of thing having grown up with parents who were academics, having been married for a time to an academic, and being called on herself to give talks in Oxford. She enjoyed speaking in front of people, hearing her practiced words and thoughts cut into the air, making eye contact, modifying her inflection to better communicate with the people in front of her.
Though the opening talk was in Russian, it was clear that not all of the audience understood Russian, and that they were there for the opening of the exhibit. As she talked and moved her gaze around the room, she saw the woman from the church, Anna Ebner, sitting in the back of the room. After the talk, Anna came up to greet her.
“I was planning to attend this exhibit, anyway, and meeting you yesterday made me decide to come today. I don’t understand a bit of Russian, but I so enjoyed your presentation. Please don’t let me keep you.”
“Actually, I wouldn’t mind some company. At home, in Oxford, a friend always accompanies me to these events. He acts as a sort of body guard, protecting me from anyone tempted to monopolize my ear.”
“I have attended plenty such events myself, so I understand. Will you walk with me through the exhibit?”
When they were done walking through, Anna invited Katya to see her house that was only a few blocks away from the college. Katya told Anna about the years she spent as a young girl in the neighborhood. Anna had moved into the area about two years after Katya had left for school, so she was able to fill her in on the changes since.
“It isn’t really meal time, but maybe you’d like some tea and a snack?”
“Some tea would be
nice, but I’m not hungry. The flight and
the time change have upset my stomach.”
“Oh, yes, I know. I was doing a fair amount of international travel for a while when Stefan was alive.”
“He was the person who gave me the harpsichord that you saw at the church. I can’t say we were a couple, really, because we never lived on the same continent, but we were involved and tried to see each other when we could.”
Anna’s house was not too far from her church. It was small, quite clean, with some nice art on the walls.
“My husband was the director of the art museum and had a personal collection.”
“He died of cancer about ten years ago. Here, let me show you his picture. I have a picture of Stefan, too, with his son, Fritz.” She showed Katya the pictures. “Fritz, like his father, is a violinist, and we are planning a performance together in New York next spring.” Katya noticed that she smiled as she said this, much as she did when she explained the origins of the harpsichord at the church.
They shared some tea and conversation, and Katya answered questions about her own marriage and illness and relocation to England. They made plans to see each other at church the next morning.
Katya ate some crackers and yogurt for dinner, took a bath, and went to bed early. The pain in her intestines wasn’t subsiding, and it tired her. All she wanted to do was sleep.
She dreamt that night that she was in the hospital having surgery. She was already bald from the chemotherapy and burned from the radiation. There was no anesthetic, but the doctor kept cutting while she screamed. Instead of excising a tumor, however, he began pulling babies out of her abdomen and holding them up to her. Each baby, bloody and red, could already talk, and they spoke in English and Russian, with the voices of her parents and her husband and people she vaguely remembered from Siberia. She was told she could only choose one, and she couldn’t. They all seemed wonderful, and they all seemed hateful. She woke up crying, sweaty, and in pain. She had some tea and a small bowl of oatmeal and walked to the church.
The congregation was small. Anna was readying herself at the harpsichord when Katya came. She gave a little wave and began playing the prelude.
The familiar rhythm of the Mass soothed Katya and provided her with a frame for all that had been stirred up in her since her arrival in Milwaukee, and it was the most familiar words which gave her traction. While others received communion, snippets floated into her mind, attaching themselves to thoughts and feelings, grounding them, giving them a rightful place in the picture of her life. Jesus kept saying, “Do this in remembrance…” She recalled a newspaper article about traumatized veterans. A psychologist interviewed said, “they remember and forget, remember and forget, but until they remember and integrate…” Jesus said, “Remember…” But she wasn’t the victim of the horrible acts of war. The Eucharistic prayer goes on, “He stretched out his arms along the wood of the cross…” In one of the Gospels, he said to the disciples, “Unless you take up your cross…” She had always noted that he did not say “the cross” but “your cross”. There was a cross for each person. Then, right before the Memorial Acclamation, the priest says, “recalling his death, resurrection, and ascension…” In other words recalling the good and the bad.
She couldn’t wait for the service to be over. When it was, she greeted Anna and asked if she could call on her once more but later in the afternoon.
She walked to the main street through her old neighborhood, buying from a corner grocery an apple and a sandwich and some vegetable juice, all of which she consumed hungrily while she walked. Her feet had no trouble retracing the steps. First she passed the endocrinologist’s office, then turned east, towards Lake Michigan, down a quiet residential street until she came to a corner from which one could easily see the lake. There it was – the house she lived in for eight years of her life, where she learned English, where she learned how to be a daughter, where she became a young woman, where she introduced to her parents the man who would be, for a few years anyway, her husband. She crossed the street into the park that went along the lake, walking down the paths she and her parents so often walked along on pleasant Sunday afternoons.
She sat down on a bench and made herself remember the journey away from this place, first to the University and into the arms of her future husband, then across the ocean to yet another culture. She crossed her arms around herself as she remembered the tortured love making sessions, the sinking feeling each month she menstruated which meant she had not conceived which meant she was not pleasing her husband which meant that she may once again find herself abandoned – like she had once been a long time ago by parents she never knew in Siberia.
She hugged herself as she sat on the bench overlooking the large, beautiful body of water, autumn sun making it like a large gemstone. The days of illness coming forth in her mind and the abandonment by her husband that came at the end. She remembered learning of the death of her parents so far away and being unable to say goodbye or even attend their funerals.
She thought of the way Anna smiled genuinely and yet also with sadness in her eyes when she mentioned the deaths of two men who she loved. There was something to learn when she saw that, and she felt herself beginning to learn it
She brought to mind, too, her life now – immersing herself in the teaching and sharing of a language, immersing herself also in a church she had adopted, trusting completely that, though the human beings involved may potentially abandon her, the truths she found there could never abandon her. Truth was not capable of that. She thought of the lushness of her new hometown of Oxford. She thought of her sweet friend, Sergei, who shared with her a fragile ability to connect.
The pain in her abdomen was gone. It had frightened her so badly, reminding her of the pain that lead to the cancer diagnosis. She thought about that illnes. She had thought at the time and for a long time after that her body had betrayed her, and in the mirror her face looked like the faces of those in the endocrinologist’s waiting room. But had it betrayed her? If it had not had happened, she might still be married, by now a mother, living the life of a wife of a professor in Oxford. Was that really who she was? Would she have been able to sustain that existence?
The dreams of the past two nights came to mind – the languages, the mixed up geography and chronology, but now she saw all those disparate parts as a whole, living inside her live body that sat in the afternoon sun. She was at home and that home was her body.
At 3:30, she rang Anna’s doorbell. The house smelled like fresh bread.
“Every Sunday afternoon I bake Sonnenblumenbackerel – Sunflower Rolls. The few times I visited Stefan in Austria; we bought these. Would you like some? They are good with tea.”
“Yes. My appetite has returned.“
“Just in time for the flight home.”
They talked for a while, exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and then Katya walked back to her room at the college.
The next day, she began the journey home to Oxford. Her bus arrived in Oxford about 4:00 on Tuesday afternoon, and Sergei and his parents were waiting at the bus station for her.
Katya and Sergei sat in the back seat of the car for the short ride to her place.
He took her hand, “I’m glad you’re home.”
7. On Being a Man
Note: A passacaglia is a form that popular in the late 1600’s through the first part of the 1700’s. The word originates from two Italian words which, when elided, mean “to walk along a sidewalk”. In a passacaglia, a “ground” is stated – low and long notes – and then is subsequently re-stated throughout the composition with variations.
The first thing I did was send a text to Ingrid [Call came. I’m in.]. She works in a kindergarten, so she can’t answer her phone during the day. At that time, we had been involved with each other for about a year. She was from the south of Austria, just over the Italian border, and I liked to tease her, “Who was walking back and forth over the mountains and across that border?” This is because she had the looks of an Italian – olive skin, fluffy, dark hair, and a big smile. “You have an opera singer’s mouth,” I’d say, and then we’d laugh because she has no ear. As a result, she had no interest in music. You would think that might be a problem – I’m a musician by profession – but she is a generous person. Between that and her beauty, it is no wonder she is good at her work; I think the students fall in love with her. I sure did.
I really wanted to tell someone else, too, so I tried to call Anna. She is the woman my father was involved with the year before he died. She lives in America, but we stay in touch by phone or email about once a week. I prefer the phone. Hearing her voice brings back my father to me. “Anna, it’s Fritz. I got the call, and I’m in. I rehearse this evening, but if you get this in the next couple of hours, try to call.”
The person I really wanted to tell was my father, but, as you now know, he died. If he was alive, I would have waited until we practiced together which we did once a week from the time I started playing at age four until the time when he died when I was eighteen. This is what it would have been like: we would meet like we always did, get out our violins, rosin up the bows. He’d say, “What are we going to do today?” I would say, “I don’t know. What do you want to do? Oh, by the way, the call came.” Then I would have looked at him looking at me, and we would both nod with just a bit of smile.
Anna called about an hour after I left the message. International calls have their limits, but she said the one thing I needed some live person to say, “This would have pleased your father.”
I had a rehearsal with my string quartet that night, and two others were going to join us to work on the Brahms Sextet. Werner, Erich, and Hans are the regulars, and Rainer and Stefan were joining us. We all play in the orchestra either as substitutes or regulars. When we were done tuning, I said, “I got the call.” Stefan said, “In?” I nodded yes. They all tapped their bows on their stands. I like them all, and our rehearsals are always energetic. I was happy that Stefan was the one who asked the question. My father’s name was Stefan.
I miss my father. One of the reasons I like staying in touch with Anna is that she loved him, maybe even loved him as much as I did. And I did – do – love him. I have wondered why my love for him is so uncomplicated, and I think it is because he was uncomplicated. He was old world. His father was a violinist in our orchestra; my father was a member of our orchestra his entire career, beginning in the second violins, working up to the firsts, and then to concertmaster. This music is not for us a matter of choice or self-expression as much as it is a responsibility. It is like this: once I saw a picture of a Hungarian baron whose responsibility it was to care for the crown of St. Stephen. Was it really the crown of St. Stephen? Who knows, but there he and his friends were in that photograph, holding a crown on a piece of velvet, a group of middle aged, middle European men, with responsible looks on their faces. That is how it is for us. I think that is why my father was such an excellent teacher of music. He believed that he possessed a treasure that must be carefully handed down to the next bearers of that treasure. He was so gentle with me, introducing aspects of music making to me bit by bit.
I remember the exact moment when I realized I was to continue the tradition. He and I were walking somewhere. I was twelve. The sun was at our backs so that our shadows were in front of us. I was shorter, but we had a similar gate and were both carrying our violin cases. I saw the man I was supposed to become, and I felt that manhood stirring in the very middle of my body. After that, everything I did had to be in line with that destiny, or I didn’t do it.
My father was uncomplicated and old world in other ways, too. He was devoted to his parents. He was faithful in the observances of the Church. He chose at an appropriate age a very appropriate woman to be his wife, and they had me. I don’t think he ever even dreamed of cheating on my mother. Oh, sure, he enjoyed looking at a lovely woman, but to be a husband and father were to him sacred responsibilities.
As I said earlier, Ingrid and I were pretty involved. We didn’t live together or even sleep together. She came from a devout, mountain family. They were so devout that they knelt and said the rosary before opening Christmas presents. One of the first things she told me when we started seeing each other is that she was a virgin and intended to stay that way until she was married. “I have a garden in me,” she said with her wide smile, “and I’m waiting for a guest who will walk through with respect.” How could I not love a woman like that? I too was a virgin, more out of lack of opportunity than intention, but, had I been pressed on the issue, I would have taken her stance. We were involved in our way. We talked to each other each day on the phone and sent texts -- a lot! We had dinner every Wednesday after she was done teaching. On the weekends, we usually met up after a performance. She would always come even though she had no particular love of music. “It’s your world,” she said, “and I want to know about it.” We went to church on Sundays.
The Saturday afternoon after the call came, she met me at the back stage entrance. We had planned to go out for coffee and torte.
Once we were there and served, I brought up to her something that had been on my mind since receiving the call.
“I think we should get married.”
“I thought you were going to say that today.”
“Why? When did you start thinking that?”
“When I saw you walk on stage today. You had a new swagger, like most of the other, older men have.”
I knew what she was saying. There we are with our little instruments, valuable but really small things. A child could give one stomp to it, and it would be useless. But we walk out with those instruments in our hands like we are the kings of the world. That is how we feel, too. Then we play the music like we are serving up the noblest of truths.
“Will you marry me, Ingrid?”
“Yes. I have known for a while now that I would marry you. Let’s call my Popi when we’re done. You should ask his permission.”
We called her Popi who gave his blessing.
“We should tell my mother tomorrow when we visit her.”
Ingrid and I call on my mother once or twice a month, always on Sunday afternoons.
“Mutti,” I always say, kissing her cheek. Ingrid will also kiss my mother, and then we sit in her front room with coffee and some cookies and talk about mundane things.
“Mutti, we have something to tell you today.” She didn’t reply, so I continued, “Ingrid and I are going to be married. Her Popi has given his blessing.”
“You ask her now that you are in the orchestra?”
“I wanted to wait until I knew I could support a family.”
“Support a family? What kind of support? Does she know that you are already married to that orchestra, that those men will mean more to you than she will?”
My mother, who left my father over this, had not left her bitterness. All through my youngest years, she was unhappy about his commitment to the orchestra. Then he became sick, prostate cancer. Unfortunately, their arguments were audible to me, and I heard. She said he had not been a husband, and now he was not a man, and she wanted to be free to find another. The whole thing was so incomprehensible to my father. He thought that certainly she knew that she, too, would bear the burden of the tradition we were entrusted with. But, he once said to me, “The Church teaches that in a marriage there is respect.” And, so, he let my mother go, out of respect for her wishes.
We made plans for a mid-June wedding. It was a good time for Ingrid’s family to travel up from the mountains, and the orchestra’s season would be over.
The months between the announcement of our engagement and the wedding were busy with work and wedding plans and plans Ingrid and I were making to find a place to live and set up a household.
The inside of myself was also busy in a way that it had never been before. I had always known what I was doing and why I was doing it. “Single-minded” is a term people applied to me.
My mother’s response to our engagement announcement put me on a much slipperier surface that I had ever been on before. I thought I knew where I was going and why, but now I doubted myself. Once that doubt took hold in my mind, it wouldn’t stop. No one knew this. I didn’t tell Ingrid for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to upset her. Two, I couldn’t put into words, even for myself, what was going on inside of me. The word slippery really says it all. It was like this: Think about what it’s like walking on a sidewalk in winter. You know your feet are on the ground; you know how to walk, where you’re walking and why. But the ice under your feet challenges your confidence. Your legs wobble; you almost fall. The longer you walk on that icy sidewalk, the more rigid and unnatural the process becomes. It is exhausting and frustrating.
I would wake up in the middle of the night fearful that I was going to ruin Ingrid’s life. I would wonder if I could be a father, a husband. I wondered what it even meant to be a man. Maybe all the notions that I took for granted – loving and providing for a woman, setting an example for children, passing on to them our tradition of music – maybe they were useless, impotent ideals.
In May, I had a trip to New York City planned. I had been there before with the orchestra (when I was still only a substitute), but this time I was going on my own to perform with Anna, who I mentioned earlier.
My father was a part of a cultural exchange organization that had sponsored two harpsichord recitals given by Anna in Austria while he was still alive. After he died, she stayed involved with this organization. They were hosting a benefit in New York that would include a concert with a focused Austrian theme: Anna would perform on my grandmother’s harpsichord, an old instrument made by a significant builder in Austria which my father had willed Anna at the time of his death. She would also be performing on an organ recently built by an American builder but in the style of a Salzburg chamber organ. I would join her on some Biber Sonatas and also do his Passacaglia for solo violin. Biber was actually Bohemian, but he spent a good portion of his career in Salzburg. I was excited for the artistic challenge, the adventure of traveling on my own, and also the opportunity to perform with Anna. She and my father only performed together once at her church a few months before he died, but I remember him telling me that they did a Biber Sonata.
It was great to see Anna again. Like I said earlier, we were in touch about once a week, and whenever the orchestra came to New York, she would travel to hear us. She was a link to my father, and she is also an older woman who I can lean on from time to time for advice or encouragement.
She was happy about my engagement and approved of Ingrid – what she knew of her from pictures and my descriptions – and she approved of me getting married and that implies she thought I could be a good husband.
We had two rehearsals the day before the benefit and another brief rehearsal scheduled the afternoon of the benefit. The first was just Anna and I, but the second included the builder of the chamber organ. He was there to check tuning and listen to the instrument as it had never been performed on before. His name was Nic, and he was friendly and open like I had so often experienced in Americans.
“Actually,” he said (he talked quite a bit), “I was raised in Quebec, but I guess that’s still North America, the New World, right?”
I nodded. I wasn’t always sure how to deal with the forthrightness and familiarity of Americans.
Anna was working on her harpsichord, so I sat with Nic in the hall and talked about his work.
“My father was a builder. Really, I thought I’d never end up in this business – tried to do everything I could NOT to end up in it – but here I am and loving it. The organ sounds pretty good. What do you think?”
“I like it. I’ve never performed with a chamber organ, and it is nice to be working with Anna.”
“She told me about your father. I’m sorry. He was a violinist, too, wasn’t he? Did you fight becoming one?”
“This is all I ever thought I would do.”
Nic was momentarily at a loss for words. “Well, Anna tells me you are getting married next month. Congratulations.” I wondered how so much personal information was exchanged between Anna and Nic, since they had just met that week. I had to remember the difference in culture.
“Yes, I’m getting married.”
“You don’t seem that excited. Is there a ‘reason’ you have to be married?”
“No!” I knew I sounded defensive. This openness among Americans did loosen me up.
Once again, Nic was speechless, but this time the look on his face changed.
“You know, a friend and her neighbor are coming soon. We asked Anna to join us for a light supper. You are welcome to come along. I promised Henrietta, my friend, that I’d help them home, but I have some time off tomorrow before the afternoon rehearsal. Maybe you’d like to go out for some coffee?”
I was glad he didn’t say “go out for a drink”. “Can I let you know a little later?”
After the rehearsal, a woman whose age I could not determine came into the hall with a very small, somewhat older woman who walked with a cane. The first woman, who I later learned was Henrietta, looked both worldly and innocent. She dressed like a European and didn’t say much, and when she did, I had to listen closely because she spoke so softly. The woman she was with was her neighbor, a former ballet star. She had traveled a lot in her dancing days and was familiar with many of the halls I had played in with our orchestra and knew quite a few conductors. The conversation ranged over many topics. I was happy for a change of scenery and a distraction from my angst.
As we parted, Nic said, “Coffee tomorrow at 2:00? There’s a place on the corner just west of the hall. We can meet there.”
I said yes, wondering why I was going to spend time with this total stranger who seemed interested in discussing my upcoming wedding.
I arrived right at 2:00, and Nic was already there. We bought some coffee served in large paper cups, and he bought an apple that he began eating without the benefit of a knife. He asked me about the orchestra and Ingrid and details about the wedding. I wondered why he was so interested in these things and about me, someone he had just met.
“I’m interested in everything,” he said, “And you seem a little lonely. I had some time off today anyway, and it is nice to get to know someone new.”
I didn’t have anything to say, so I drank some more of my coffee.
“So, why don’t you sound enthusiastic about your upcoming wedding?”
I looked him in the eye and decided to give him honest answer.
“Listen, my mother left my father because of his devotion to the orchestra. She is still very bitter about it. When we announced our engagement, she once again brought this up, even though she has been without my father and their marriage for over a decade. Much as I don’t like to admit it, her bitterness has infected my mind. I’m terrified that I’m doing the wrong thing, that being a musician and a husband are incompatible. I’m don’t know if how I imagine my life as a man is really what a man should be. My father was old world; many of the men in the orchestra are also that way. But this is the 21st century. I go around like this in my mind all the time.”
Nic didn’t say anything for so long that I began to apologize.
“No,” he began, “It makes sense to me that you would have this anxiety.”
“What do you think I should do?” I couldn’t believe I was asking a near stranger this.
“What do I think? I think you should do what is true to your core.” He finished this sentence and looked me directly in the eye. “You need to be the man you are.”
There was a short rehearsal, and then I had time to eat something and change for the concert. The time difference made phone calls difficult, so I sent Ingrid a text, “Good to be here. I love the music Anna and I are doing, and the acoustics in the hall are great for the solo piece at the end. Next time I come to New York, I think you should come, too. Take care of your beautiful self, Ingrid, and I’ll be back in Austria soon.”
The audience was attentive, and I really like performing with Anna. Anna is a very grown up person, and I don’t just mean her age. She is at ease in her self, and this is apparent in her playing. She doesn’t steal the show, and she doesn’t apologize. Her solo pieces were enjoyable, and the Biber Sonatas we did, accompanied with harpsichord and Nic’s new organ, went well.
We decided to take the risk of putting the Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin at the end of the concert. It is an awfully quiet, somber way to end, but Anna said that people would like leaving with something to think about.
As I stood in the middle of the stage with my violin, checking the tuning, I remembered that this is the piece I played for Ingrid’s family when I first met them. I chose this for them because it is unaccompanied. I also chose it because it is a work that Biber intended to go with his Mystery Sonatas – works that were inspired by the rosary, and I knew this would be meaningful to her parents.
I began. The room had enough reverberation for the sound to grab onto the air and enough clarity that each note enunciated itself. I felt my whole self was grabbing onto the air, and my ear and mind and head shaping each note in the clarity of hall. The image of my father and I walking when I was twelve came to mind and then changed. My shadow grew taller and matched his height. The stirring deep in the core of my body became a throb. Then his shadow was gone, and mine continued, violin in hand, walking forward.
8. Nunc Dimitis
Henrietta Clark was at her desk with three things lined up in front of her, sitting completely still and wondering how to proceed.
How did this happen? She never even used her desk before. Every morning for the first twenty years, she would go to her desk, put her bag and lunch in the locked bottom drawer and then assume her post at the general reference desk at the New York Public Library in 42nd Street.
She blinked and tried to refocus on the three things in front of her. One was a schedule of presentations, the next a guest list for the opening reception, and her personal calendar was next to that. She shook her head. She was, at age fifty-two, busy for the first time in her life. She smiled. Recently she had read that, “mid-life changes are most often precipitated by an un-planned crisis.” Now she felt like laughing. Yes, her mid-life change was precipitated by an un-planned crisis – her kitchen drain became so clogged that she could not fix it on her own. The “super” from the building came to fix it, striding into her apartment and then into her life.
Henrietta certainly would have never dreamt of anyone striding into her life, not to mention an uneducated, un-traveled man who was fifteen years her junior and who worked with his hands. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. While it is true that Nic had no formal education and had never left the continent of North America, never had even been West of the Rocky Mountains or South of the Mason-Dixon Line, he was remarkably well read and fluent in French and English as she herself was. And his work with his hands was very interesting to her -- he was an organ builder of some talent and had recently been researching old chamber organs from Central Europe and building replicas. Neither Nic nor Henrietta had been looking, for lack of a better word, for a companion, and both of them knew, though they never said it to each other, that they couldn’t have asked for a more suitable person to fill the role.
She decided to begin with the presentation schedule. There was a collection of icons from an Oxford college that was doing a small tour of the U.S. The library wanted to host it, but being a library, they wanted a slightly different take. They added some vestments from lent from Orthodox churches in the vicinity and also a limited series of presentations that would discuss the transport and care of these art objects. This was brought up at a meeting several months earlier. The chairman of the meeting said that he’d like to have a presentation on the repair of vestments, and Henrietta, who had never in over twenty years spoken at a meeting said, “My neighbor is known throughout the city for this work.” The chairman asked her to investigate the possibility of this person giving a presentation and also, since she was at it, contact the college in Oxford. They had their own art handler and a staff person who was considered the expert on the collection. Were both of those people available?
Most of the details for this seemed to be in place. The presentations would happen the day of the opening, February 2, a Thursday.
Next she looked at the guest list for the opening’s reception. There was the usual list of donors and supporters and socialites who like to feel included. She decided to use this new position to add a few names to the queue. Nic of course was on the list as was Kirsten Larsen, her neighbor who would be giving a presentation on the mending of vestments. Anna Ebner, a harpsichordist and organist who debuted one of Nic’s organs was planning to be in the city that weekend, so she was on the list. The violinist who performed with Anna, Fritz Haselbock, was also going to be in the city at the same time for his own performances, and he and his wife were on the list.
Which brought her to her personal calendar: Henrietta loved orchestra concerts, and the weekend of the exhibit’s opening coincided with the yearly visit of her favorite orchestra from Europe. Fritz Haselbock was a member of this orchestra, and so attending the concerts not only took on new meaning, it added extra social events to her schedule which, at one time in her life, had no social events listed whatsoever. Nic had befriended young Fritz, and they had stayed in touch. Fritz’s wife, Ingrid, was expecting their first child, but, at seven months pregnant and very healthy, her doctor approved the international flight.
Things were as ready as they could be. Henrietta stacked the three items, put them in her bag, and walked to St. Thomas to meet Nic, so they could attend Evensong together.
The Tuesday of the next week, she was meeting the two people from Oxford. She looked at the names, so she could greet them properly: Katya Newman and Sergei Fairhurst, two English surnames and two Russian first names. This piqued her inquisitiveness. She loved observing details about people. For instance, she made a game out of noticing which hand a library patron used. If they were left-handed, the questions would be interesting and challenging. If they were right-handed, but, say, pointed with their left hand, they’d be more like the left- handed people. Right-handed people who pointed with their right hand asked easier questions and didn’t take long to satisfy. Again she smiled to herself: Nic, she noticed early in their friendship, was left-handed. She refocused her attention on the entrance and checked her watch. The pair she was waiting for was quickly recognizable. They were both very short, and, when Henrietta noticed the woman – presumably Katya – had on high-healed boots, she realized that this visitor was not even five feet tall. They both had dark hair and wary, dark eyes. The woman was shapely in the most ideal ways, and the young man – ten or more years younger than his co-worker – held onto her arm.
“Are you Katya Newman and Sergei Fairhurst?”
“Yes,” said Katya, extending her hand. Sergei kept his free hand at his side and nodded.
Henrietta showed them the exhibit that was partially installed and waiting for Sergei’s assistance with the more delicate pieces. She went over the schedule for the presentations and the opening reception.
“Do you leave the next day?”
“No, we are staying an extra night. A person I met when the exhibition was in Milwaukee will be in the city this weekend, and she has invited us to a concert on Friday night. She knows someone who is performing. We fly out on Saturday afternoon.”
On Thursday at 5:30 everything was in place. The director of the library introduced Katya Newman. After acknowledging the director’s introduction, she began.
“The icon which the viewer sees at the beginning of the exhibit and which is reprinted on the front of the catalogue and the front of your programs this evening depicts the image of Mary and Joseph taking taking Jesus to the Temple. This event is celebrated today, February 2, and is known as the Feast of the Presentation. In the story, Simion is an old man who has continued to faithfully perform his duties in the Temple and has willfully delayed death because he knows that this moment, the moment of seeing Jesus, The Christ, The Redeemer, is coming. The Gospel records the song he sings. Known as the Nunc Dimitis, it is a song said and sung in churches and religious communities and in homes by countless people at the end of each day as they pray their Evening Prayers:
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes
have seen the salvation that you have prepared for all
the world to see….
It seems logical then, doesn’t it, that we should begin this exhibit which opens on this day with this icon. But this is not the only reason to open with this icon. The other reason is that all of you and all who will walk through this gallery will be like Simion; your eyes will see the salvation that God has prepared for all. Icons embody truths that are timeless and that care nothing for what you believe or do not believe or whether you encounter them in a church or a gallery or a book. Their energy and ability to communicate transcends all particulars.”
Who would have expected that this diminutive, shapely woman with wary eyes and an odd accent would speak with so much command? Henrietta was entranced by how the speaker transformed from a somewhat frightened looking woman into a prophet.
Next, Ms. Newman’s co-worker Sergei Fairhurst gave a short talk on the handling of these works of art.
“Thank you for having me. I find it humorous that I entered this line of work because it is a practical way for me to earn a living caring for art and does not require excellent language skills because language is not one of my talents, and here I find myself in a foreign country giving a talk.” The audience was charmed by his self-deprecation and was particularly attentive and indulgent with his sincere and halting contribution. When he was done, he went to sit with Ms. Newman who took his hand. Henrietta made a note of this gesture and waited for the next speaker.
Kirsten Larsen, the person who was giving the final presentation, had been Henrietta’s neighbor for most of her life, but it was because of Nic that they finally met. She had been a ballet star, and Henrietta and her parents went to the ballet on a regular basis and often caught a glimpse of her entering the building with her husband. But Henrietta’s parents were both severely hearing impaired, so light social banter was awkward and actively avoided. It had been years since Henrietta had thought of her. Then, during a particularly bad snowstorm the previous December, Nic noticed an older woman stranded alongside a building with shopping bags at her feet. He offered help and invited her to Henrietta’s apartment, and they all became fast friends. In the second half of her life, Kirsten Larsen had become quite an expert in the mending of vestments.
Years of dancing had taken their toll, and her movements to the podium were labored but also dignified and decisive. She had a beautiful poise as she explained and demonstrated with small liturgical objects some of the more interesting and unknown aspects of approaching this work. Her speech was clear and punctuated with pauses to let the information sink in. At the end of her talk, she bowed to the enchanted audience.
While Henrietta had been in charge of compiling a list of guests for the reception, she had no specific duty for the actual event except to be present and decorative. Nic arrived promptly, as he always did. He didn’t own a suit, and when he asked her what would be acceptable, she said, “Black.” So, he wore black jeans and a bulky black sweater that made his ever-curious eyes shine even more brightly. He kissed her cheek when he arrived.
“I just had a call from Fritz. He and Ingrid are stopping by Anna’s room and will be here shortly.”
Fritz soon came, and on his arm was his new bride, Ingrid, who they had heard about last May. She was young and effortlessly beautiful, Henrietta thought, the sort of youthful beauty that can bring poignant tears and a feeling of protectiveness to an older woman’s eyes. Fritz looked comfortable in his role as a husband. Anna Ebner, the harpsichordist, walked alongside of Ingrid. Though she suspected that Anna was somewhat younger, Henrietta felt certain that Anna had done much more living than she had done and that she was acquainted with loss. She was elegant, in full possession of herself, and her eyes had the kind of sadness that would put other people at ease. Henrietta was glad to encounter this woman again.
There were handshakes and embraces, and everyone treated Ingrid with the greatest tenderness.
“Do you remember Kirsten Larsen from last May?” Nic asked Fritz, “She is on the other side of the room. It’s great we’re all here.”
Henrietta had found Kirsten a chair where she could comfortably socialize with people. Katya and Sergei were standing next to her.
“Kirsten!” Nic was always one to make sure everyone knew each other and was engaged in conversation. “Do you remember Fritz Haselbock? And this is Ingrid, his wife.”
“How good to see you again, Fritz. Ingrid – enchante! You are expecting. When are you due and how are things going?”
“I have two months yet, and the doctor says I was built to be a mother.”
Nic proceeded with introductions, “Katya and Sergei, we have people for you to meet.”
But before he could proceed, Anna extended her hand to Katya, “Katya, I am so glad to see you again. I didn’t find out about this reception until yesterday, and I had no way of reaching you.”
“You know each other?” Henrietta asked.
“We met when Katya was in Milwaukee last November. She literally ended up on the steps of my church, and then I went to her presentations. We have stayed in touch, and when she wrote that she was coming to New York this weekend, I asked if she could stay an extra day. I have tickets for the both of them for tomorrow night’s concert.”
Nic continued his role as M.C., introducing himself to Katya and Sergei, and then introducing the two visitors from Oxford to Fritz, Ingrid, Anna, and Kirsten.
“Henrietta and I always go to these concerts, and we bought a ticket for Kirsten to join us, since she met Fritz last May. Fritz,” Nic continued, “how about a little repartee after the concert? Ingrid, would it be too late for you?”
Ingrid and Fritz consulted each other in German, and Fritz said that it would be wonderful. “Ingrid has never been outside of Austria, and now she is in New York! After the baby is born, travel won’t be as easy. We would love to be with our new friends for a little while longer. Let’s meet at the stage door after the concert. There’s a restaurant attached to the hotel that is nice for this sort of gathering.”
The Friday night concert was sold out. It was a busy time of year in New York for performances of all sorts, and Midtown that night was a beehive of cars and taxis and busses and people.
Fritz’s orchestra always caused a stir. The concert was sold out, and the lobby was crowded with ticket holders more than an hour before the performance. Because they only came once a year and because of their mythic reputation, orchestra lovers of all stripes were in attendance: the usual wealthy music lovers, plenty of students, a good number of Austrian expatriates, and those who rarely attended any performances but venture out and spend the money to hear this marvelous institution.
Anna had tickets for herself as well as Katya, Sergei, and Ingrid high in the front row of the balcony. Henrietta and Nic preferred this location, too, because the whole orchestra can be seen and the sound comes together so well at that point in the room. But the steps are steep, and, since Kirsten was with them, they chose some aisle seats on the floor.
The concert opened with the Helios Overture by Karl Nielsen, a heroic piece, and then moved to Anton Webern’s romantic orchestration of Bach’s Ricecar. After intermission, everyone, including the orchestra, settled in for the long and wonderful train-ride of Bruckner’s Sixth symphony. There were plenty of ovations after a concert that transported everyone to a more hopeful realm.
Emptying a crowded hall is more difficult than filling it, and both the balcony group and the three on the floor had to wait patiently to move very slowly out the entrance and make their way around the block to the stage door. To add to the chaos of a sold out hall pouring out onto the sidewalk and an already bustling Friday night in New York, there was lots of precipitation, the kind that looks like snow in the air but lands like large raindrops on the pedestrians’ heads. Umbrellas further clogged the sidewalks.
The stage door had a crowd around it. There were musicians waiting for other musicians, friends of musicians, students, those who just wanted a peek. There were umbrellas and cigarettes and plenty of German and English being spoken. Anna and her group arrived at the stage door first. Sergei clung to Katya’s arm, and the both of them huddled next to the building. Ingrid and Anna stood further out because they knew the orchestra members. There were lots of handshakes shared and cheeks kissed. Henrietta and Nic were on each side of Kirsten, who, despite her slow movements, looked regal walking down the sidewalk. No one can hold her head like a ballerina, Henrietta thought. Soon both groups were joined, bubbling with reflections on what they had heard and complaining about the weather.
“Hallo, all of you!” Fritz called and waved, “Let’s head this way!” And together, all eight of them, walked East towards the restaurant that was next to Fritz, Ingrid, and Anna’s hotel.
There was an explosion and then two more. Cars were thrown onto the sidewalk. Chunks of concrete sailed through the air. Shattered glass fell like rain. Mud spewed from sewers under the street, coating everything and everyone in sight. The power of the explosions knocked most everyone off their feet, and in particularly crowded portions of the sidewalk, people fell on top of each other. Some were pinned under overturned cars. Chunks of flying concrete hit people in the head causing bleeding and knocking some unconscious. People were screaming. No one could run; there was no room to run. There were no sirens for five minutes -- just the sound of screams and moans and random calls for specific help. The electricity went out. A car started on fire and then another.
The party of eight walking from the orchestra concert to the restaurant was showered with glass and concrete. Amid the chaos, Kirsten Larsen was knocked over and then walked over. She couldn’t get up. Nic lifted her off the sidewalk. No one was really walking; there was no room to walk. But they moved forward.
A car right in front of them burst into flames. Ingrid screamed and stopped walking.
“Fritz!” she yelled above the noise, “Something just happened to me!”
“I think it is the baby! I think it is coming!”
“Stress induced labor,” Henrietta said. “ We need to get her inside.”
They had just made it to the hotel. Nic was still carrying Kirsten. They convened in a circle near the corner of the building.
Nic began, “What are we going to do?”
Sergei stepped away from Katya, “When I was in the orphanage in Russia, I helped deliver babies.”
Their attention was momentarily moved away from the disaster to this pronouncement.
He continued, “Sometimes older girls would become pregnant. The orphanage didn’t want people outside to know, so we delivered the babies ourselves. I was strong, so I had to assist. Nic call for help and take care of Kirsten. While we wait, let’s get set up.” He moved forward assertively, pushing people out of the way. He began moving couches in the lounge that were still unoccupied, making a barrier. Then he took off the cushions and made a bed. “Ingrid, lie down. Fritz, go to her head. Henrietta and Anna, go to each side. I need something like a towel. If the baby comes, we need to dry it immediately. Katya, go to my left.”
“Why left? Why me?”
“I’m left handed, and I can’t think fast enough in English.”
He continued to give instructions to Katya who translated to the others, and Fritz translated to Ingrid in German. Anna and Henrietta, bruised and covered with silt and mud, held Ingrid’s hands.
The baby delivered quickly. There was a little tearing, not much blood. Sergei expertly dried the baby off, umbilical cord intact, and laid the baby on Ingrid’s stomach.
“Let’s try to wait for a doctor to come and cut the cord. I can do it, but I’d prefer not to.”
After Nic had found a place for Kirsten to safely lie down, he determined, with her help, that she had no broken bones, just some bad twists and bruises. He then went about the hotel and then onto the street to find a doctor. This baby, though delivered easily, was two months premature, and the umbilical cord was not yet cut. His stout legs moved nimbly among the people as they did every day among the organ pipes, and his bright, quick eyes darted everywhere. Of course there was some doctor out for an orchestra concert or show in Midtown on a Friday night. “A baby has just been born in a hotel lobby,” he shouted over and over in the chaos, “We need a doctor.”
A small man of Asian descent hollered and waved. Nic bounded over pieces of concrete and through the mud. The man was quite tiny. “The baby is two months premature. We have to get there soon.”
“Carry me then.” So Nic scooped up the doctor just as he had picked up Kirsten and ran, loping again over debris, depositing him at the hotel entrance.
The doctor sent Nic to the kitchen for a knife and some alcohol (“even if it’s vodka!”), and, while he waited, listened to the baby’s breathing and heart with his ears down to the little red body. He stroked Ingrid’s head and shook Fritz’s hand.
Nic reappeared with the supplies, and the doctor proceeded to cut the cord and do the final delivering of the placenta. He held the baby and tried to estimate the weight.
“Things look good, but we really need to get to the hospital for the mother and the baby.”
Nic made some more phone calls. By this time, rescue vehicles had made it through the congestion, but they needed to tend to the most seriously injured first and control the fires.
The doctor looked at Sergei, who was sitting next to Katya. Her arm was around him, and she kept stroking his hand, murmuring things in Russian.
“Young man, you did a mighty thing. You did it well, too.”
English was too hard to comprehend after all the drama, so Katya translated. Sergei nodded and turned back to Katya.
Emergency personal were finally able to take Ingrid, Fritz, and the baby to the hospital. The group was able to return to Kirsten, who had fallen asleep. They gathered up the cushions that had been Ingrid’s bed, moved them over to where Kirsten lie, and they all fell asleep as well.
What caused the explosions? Would there be more? These questions flashed through everyone’s mind, but the immediate concerns were much more pressing. Morning came and with it news of the cause. The explosions were of a homely origin – decaying aspects of the infrastructure which lies beneath modern streets commingled to cause three explosions which were, despite how massive it seemed, limited to three square blocks.
After an event like this, no one could begin their Saturday in a routine manner. Nic called hospitals until he found the one where Ingrid, Fritz, and the baby were taken. Katya called the airline to change their flight to Sunday. Relief workers had set up a table with food for breakfast. After that, Nic, Henrietta, Katya, Sergei, and Kirsten made their way out to the street. The mess was nearly comical. Swank storefronts were shattered, their displays covered with mud and glass and chunks of concrete. Cars lay in various positions. There was no even patch of concrete to walk on. Nic helped Kirsten, and they all plodded their way out to functioning streets, hailed two cabs, and went to the hospital.
Ingrid was nursing when the others arrived, and Fritz was sitting in a chair next to the bed.
Henrietta paused at the door, “Maybe we should wait.”
“No, no, we’re finished for now. Please come in.”
Nic went to find a chair for Kirsten.
“What have you named him?”
“Mathias, after my father, and Stefan, after Fritz’s father. So, he will be Mathias Stefan Haselbock.” At this, Ingrid reached out her hand to Anna, who took it and then kissed Ingrid’s cheek. “Would you like to hold him?” So Anna took the tiny baby from Ingrid and held him with tears coming down her cheeks. “Anna, share him with the others. I think we all became family members last night.”
So Anna handed Mathias Stefan to Kirsten, who was sitting. She kissed his forehead and took a deep whiff of his head. “I like the smell of babies.”
Nic was next to Kirsten. He held Mathias Stefan, “He there little guy. You gave us all something to remember. Didn’t want to miss any action, did you? Here’s Henrietta. She’s one of the best you’ll ever meet.” Henrietta held the baby boy, her round eyes looking into the boy’s eyes. “I think he’s smiling at you Henrietta. Are you telling him a joke that only he can hear?”
Henrietta handed Mathias Stefan to Katya who looked a afraid. “He has more weight,” she said, “than it looks like he has. I can feel the life of him in my arms.” She looked at Sergei standing next to her, “Sergei, you were the first to hold him last night.”
“Sergei,” Fritz said, “we are so grateful for your bravery.”
Katya handed Mathias Stefan to Sergei who held the little boy, rocking him and humming.
Katya looked up at the others, “Sergei is humming a lullaby that mother’s in Russia sing to their babies. Sergei, how do you know that song?”
“I wasn’t born an orphan.”
“And you aren’t one now,” said Fritz as he accepted the baby back from Sergei and handed him back to Ingrid.
The next set of stories can be found at: