Monday, September 12, 2011


A constellation of freckles, the fruit of twelve summers, lay across Sarah’s cheeks and nose and brought to mind carefree days spent out of doors. Her large blue eyes were as clear as the cloudless sky and still sparkled with that undimmed mirth and joy of life that commonly abides in the female child before the complexities of adulthood loom large on the horizon.

But that usual light in Sarah’s face was veiled by clouds this night. There was a paleness in her cheeks and her head hung low where she sat. Upon her eyelashes, the remnants of tears glinted in the firelight. She began again, softly pressing the piano keys down with her slender fingers. The gentle rolling notes of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata filled the stifling air of the sitting room. She moved her head tenderly to one side as she concentrated all of her attention on bringing out the wordless melody that spoke so much. She finished the piece in the gentlest manner, lightly intoning the last notes and letting them fade away into silence before she lifted her foot from the pedal.

“Did you like that one, Grandfather?” she asked. The gentleman seated behind her continued to stare with blank eyes down and gave no hint of response. His grey visage seemed to droop down slightly from his skull, while his thin frame, all skeleton and skin, was insufficient to fill out his black suit, which draped shapelessly around him as he slumped in the armchair. The cravat he wore, which had been tied for him, was loose, allowing the wrinkled folds of skin on his neck to hang down freely upon his starched collar.

A woman’s hand touched his shoulder. “Uncle, she played that one for you, remember how Auntie loved it?” The old man stirred not at all. The stillness of a graveyard in winter hung about him. Josephine, whose pretty forehead was creased with concern, let her hand remain on his slumping shoulder. The candles in the room flickered with some slight stirring of the air. The two men standing back by the wall shifted uncomfortably, and one whispered briefly to the other. He nodded a response and both looked forward again with grave faces. Their wives nearby held bunched lace handkerchiefs up to their faces.

Josephine glanced towards Sarah, who was gazing with moist eyes at her grandfather.

“Perhaps another piece, love,” Josephine said. “How about Chopin, you like Chopin don’t you, Uncle?” The man maintained his vacant stare. Sarah nodded and turned slowly around. She placed her hands above the keys and paused. She noticed that her hands were quivering. She took a breath and tried to calm herself. Her black taffeta dress rustled as she shifted on the bench. Then she began.

She played Nocturne in E-flat major, and with the opening notes there was a faint flicker in her grandfather’s eyes. Sarah deftly brought out in the simple melancholy strain a lilting optimism that seemed to ease the heaviness in the room. With a quieted note here and a well-executed trill there, Sarah managed in that moment to make the piece seem fresh and newly heard, when in truth Grandmother Agnes had played it many times over the years upon that very piano.

The fragile old man leaned forward, tremulous hands clasped before him. “Oh!” he said, with a rough-throated voice. He continued to exert himself and, as it became clear that he wished to stand, Josephine and the two men moved in swiftly to assist him. As he was being gently lifted to his feet, Sarah paused in her playing to look back over her shoulder. Josephine whispered to her, “Keep playing dear, it’s lovely.”

With the attentive assistance afforded him, the widower took slow small steps across the room towards the open coffin of polished mahogany. It was flanked by two large arrangements of white and yellow roses, and several small vases of lilies and violets were set nearby. Joseph approached his wife. Her face radiated that quiet grace even now. But her mouth was stiff, never to smile again. He reached out for her, and laid a wrinkled and spotted hand over her delicate folded hands. The skin on them was very white in this light, and nearly transparent in its thinness. And cold. He lowered his head.

Sarah gently quitted the piano bench, leaving the song unfinished. She placed an arm tenderly around her grandfather, who was weeping his first tears since his beloved’s passing.

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