“Arabesque,” a story by Anisha Johnson, was a finalist in our recently concluded 49th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
…..The first notes of Debussy’s First Arabesque soared through the air, each note so light that it seemed to float atop the wings of a bird. Leo’s eyebrows twitched with concentration as his hands flowed smoothly into the next section, a simultaneous hop skip up and down the piano with both hands that purled as gently and musically as water. The notes rang out beneath and around him as his fingers shivered gently over the keys, and his lips twitched in an unconscious smile. Perfect, it was perfect, it sounded –.
…..Ah, damn it, he’d made a mistake. Never mind..
…..Smearing a weary hand across his face, Leo allowed his shoulders to hunch as he slumped against his piano. It seemed to quiver beneath him, a reflection of his own warmth and passion. He wondered how it was that a wrong note could be so close to the right one, right next to it even, and yet still so far away..
….. Leo swept his newsboy cap off his dark, mussed curls and laid it to rest on top of the piano, his eyes watering with exhaustion. He’d been at his battered but much-loved upright piano for four hours without a single break, trying to find inspiration for a new composition. He often chose Classical pieces to play on the piano in the hopes that a particular passage or movement would give him ideas for compositions. Today, he’d chosen First Arabesque. It wasn’t a particularly difficult piece; in fact, he’d played it countless times before, but today his fingers seemed to be sparking with cramps as though he’d stuck them in an electrical socket. He’d been playing for too long..
….. Drizzling his fingers idly along the gleaming piano keys, Leo stared tiredly around his apartment. Crinkled, half-filled pages of sheet music decorated the tiny kitchen counter, the flat, dead pillows on his bed, the grimy rug that stuck up in places like a dog’s fur after a shower, and, most noticeably, the wastebasket. The corpses of his past compositions that hadn’t amounted to anything, intermingled with the various attempts of his current one. This new composition of his wasn’t going anywhere, and he knew it – at least, nowhere but the trash bin. But he needed it to, because rent wasn’t getting any cheaper and he already lived in a hole as it was. He needed to sell something, and he needed to do it fast..
….. He closed his eyes and rested for a moment. Then, with an irritable huff, Leo swung his lanky legs off the piano bench and settled his cap firmly on his head again. He was going out for a walk. He needed to get away from his music so that his music would stop getting away from him..
….. The humid New York City air hit him in the face like a wall as he trotted down his front steps, his suit and tie gleaming mahogany in the moonlight, and the honks of impatient cars stranded in traffic like the Fields of Asphodel shattered the stuffy night air. Smog and music swirled around him, the jazz as all-pervading as the smoky night air. Those trumpets and pianos, pulling random notes out of thin air and spitting them back into thick air, thick with cigarette smoke and noise and nightclub energy, those were the sounds of chaos. Leo scowled; he hated jazz. Classical music was established; time-honored, perfect. What business did jazz have waltzing in with its improvisation and ridiculous trumpets and energy? Music was supposed to make you want to sit still, to listen and admire. Not to dance and stomp your feet. Curse his bad luck in buying an apartment that had turned out to be right next to a jazz club..
….. Hurrying away from the jazz as though his heels were on fire, Leo turned the corner into a quieter side street. He wandered aimlessly from road to road, from alley to alley, his hands in his pockets and his mind full of music. He didn’t care where he was going – he was following the path in his head, walking down the long stretch of alternating white and black steps that he spent hours and hours staring at every day..
….. And then..
….. Lilting piano music wafted out of a deep-set basement window to his right, and Leo stopped in his tracks..
….. It was Debussy’s First Arabesque, but in a way that he had never heard it before. The notes were soft and sweet, played almost hesitantly, and slow chords and trills had been added seemingly at random between them. In fact, some of the measures consisted of nothing but improvisation, and Leo realized in a heartbeat why this was..
….. This was jazz..
….. And it was beautiful..
….. Stealing over to the window, Leo pressed his big hands with his thin pianist’s fingers against the wall and craned his neck forward to listen. The brick wall was faded with time and exhaustion, but the warmth of the piano’s notes seemed to lend it a fresh gleam. Crouching down, Leo cupped his ear against the grimy window glass, his chest stilling as even his breathing quieted. The night, too, had hushed; the cars were too far away to be heard, the wind had stopped whistling and put its hands in its pockets and gone away. Everything wanted to listen to these sweet notes..
….. Jazz or no jazz, Leo had never heard sounds like this music before. He had to learn how to make it. He had to get inside that building..
….. He found a door set into the adjoining wall and used his shoulder to shove it open, coughing as a cloud of dirt flew around him like a swarm of flies. Brushing dust off his suit shoulder, he walked slowly down the flight of stairs in front of him, a hand on the wall for balance. The room at the bottom was small and grungy, and had a ceiling pockmarked with caves in which stalactites of dirt and water damage hung precariously. The walls were mere shadows and the floor creaked like bones. There was nothing beautiful about the room, nothing that made it feel lived-in..
….. Except the piano..
….. It was a grand piano, with its surface propped open so that you could see the heart and hammered arteries running inside it. It was shiny and brand new, a contrast to the stark age of the room around it. It gleamed a dusky black, with keys that glimmered like shallow water. The pedals slept peacefully at its feet, and its bench stood at a coaxing angle that invited someone to sit down upon it..
….. But there was no one else in the room..
….. Leo cautiously took a seat on the piano bench. Spiderwebs prickled along the floor and walls, but the piano itself was spotless, and there wasn’t a speck of dust on its keys. It had clearly been played recently… but where had the mysterious piano player gone? The air was as still as the pit beneath a gravestone, and now it was almost as though the beautiful music of a few minutes ago had never even existed at all..
….. Leo found that sad. He wanted it back. Dubiously, he slid a tentative foot onto the damper pedal and rested a hand on the glossy keys. Perhaps the pianist had left on purpose, to give him a chance to try the piano for himself. And if not, who cared? The piano wanted to be played. Pianos always did..
….. The first few notes of First Arabesque whispered through the chilly basement, but they didn’t sound right, and Leo soon realized that that was because they weren’t jazz. Now that he.had heard the other version, he would never be able to forget it.…..
….. Licking his lips to wet them, Leo stared nervously down at the piano. He’d never played jazz before. He’d sworn he wouldn’t. But music was special enough to break all promises..
….. Resting his fingers to the keys, he began to play the notes he knew so well, wondering if the previous player was listening to him from somewhere beyond the walls, just as he had listened to them. He knew he’d never be able to imitate the exact notes that they had played; after all, he was supposed to be able to make new sounds, new music. That was the whole point of jazz. But perhaps if he was able to do that, then, in a way, he would be imitating the other pianist after all..
….. His fingers shook as they tripped down the keys, as tenderly as a lover, experimenting with a jazzy tempo. Unconsciously squeezing his eyes shut in concentration, Leo added a trill here; an extra chord there; a rest in between..
….. It was working. It was working. A smile flashed across his lips, creasing the shadowy stubble of his cheeks. He sounded good. He could do it. He could play jazz – and he couldn’t hate it anymore, either..
….. The piano seemed to grow brighter and brighter as he played, filling the room with warmth and passion, but Leo didn’t question it. The music had sucked him under and he was, very happily, drowning..
….. Leo had thought that there was only room in his life for classical music – but he’d been wrong. There was room for both classical and jazz, and there always had been, although he’d had to make room in his heart before he’d realized it. There was room for both, and there always would be. Music was infinite like that..
….. The next morning, Leo yawned and slumped over a mug of lukewarm coffee, his hair rumpled. His bathrobe bunched up around his shoulders like a snake’s coils as he sat, deep in thought. His fingers ached as they always did when he’d been playing the piano for hours, but he was too tired to remember why, for some reason….
….. Ah. The piano. Of course..
….. He remembered it now – the jazz, the basement, everything. Where was that building, and how had he gone there? He didn’t even remember coming back home last night..
….. Or perhaps he had never even left it in the first place..
….. With a wry smile, Leo recalled that he had rested at home for a moment before setting off for a walk. Perhaps he had been so exhausted that he had never left at all. Perhaps the walk had been in his dreams..
….. Whatever the case, he didn’t need to know. Either way, he had been playing the piano all night, whether in his dreams or not. Either way, there had been music. That was all that mattered..
….. His heart began a slow pound inside his chest, and it sounded strangely rhythmic. Suddenly alert, he slid out of his chair and bounded over to the piano, stumbling over clouds of abandoned compositions. His cat mewed ruefully for attention, but he ignored it; his foot hit the side of the piano with enough force to jar his entire leg, and he ignored that too. He had to sit at the piano. He had to try to make that music again. It had worked once; perhaps, if he was lucky, he could make it work again..
….. The pads of his fingers caressed the keys as Leo played through his current composition in his mind, the one inspired by First Arabesque. Maybe it wouldn’t be as much of a failure as he had expected. Maybe he just needed to… jazz things up a little..
….. Flicking the sleeves of his nightshirt up onto his elbows, he arched his spine, rolled his shoulders, and began to play. His slim fingers warbled and trilled and the notes followed suit; they halted and picked up again and the piano obeyed with the precision and eagerness that Leo loved so much. His lips curled in a grin from ear-to-ear. So he could write music after all – even if, after what had happened last night, it seemed more like the music had written him. He could sell this. People would buy this. This was beautiful. It was neither classical nor jazz; neither one thing or another. This was both. This was order and chaos. Like his walk last night, this was reality and dream – and there was room for everything, for all of it. He didn’t have to choose. Because music was infinite like that.