|Till Human Voices Wake Us
Author: Meliere PM
It occurrs to me why I can’t ever be free: to fly, one must be as light and inconsequential as a bird. I was like that once, long ago. But over the years my body has been transmuted to gold by the concert halls of Europe. It is too weighty to fly.Rated: Fiction K - English - Drama - Words: 3,082 - Reviews: 2 - Favs: 2 - Published: 06-03-07 - Status: Complete - id: 2371107
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Till Human Voices Wake Us
The walls are sterile and pale. My fingers tighten and curl. The whitewashed surfaces about me are like silent faces, made lean yet impregnable by the burden of time. I stare back. The indifferent glare casting off white plaster tells me that these walls will remain forever pristine in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.
Something brushes my cheek. I turn away from the walls and gaze at the newly washed curtains swaying with the wind. The noon sun shimmers briefly through its ashen folds, and I shiver.
Straining in my chair, I reach of the open windows—and grimace.
The sudden impressions of sprawling young green, shifting patches of effulgence, and beyond that, the sky, make my gritty eyes squeeze and water. Sometimes the world is like one of those kaleidoscopes I played as a child: bizarre, chaotic, and yet painfully symmetrical. It is ever whirling, with each individual fragment as ephemeral and yet timeless as grains of sand on a beach. It is beautiful. But the beauty is a strange one: it can sometimes send you reeling.
I raise my eyes to the graceful oak tree leaning over the psychiatric wing, her leafy canopy crowned by the sun. I almost cry. Such organic beauty suddenly justifies the ashen curtains, the pale walls, and my icy fingers. It occurs to me that the world is symmetric after all: all the beauty in the world is often made more beautiful by the wreckage abandoned in its wake.
"By God, look at that tree, Leah!" my father's voice reach me. It is a quiet tenor, its quiescence penetrating the way the still night can sigh with such persistence. "See how it endures despite the forceful winds!"
The wind is an ever-present element at Long Grove Hospital. During the day it wails and during the night it moans. There was one time when I hated the wind and its cries. I hated its liberty, its ease to mourn and shriek and speak.
But now I love the wind and its clamor. Life at Long Grove is reticent and monastic: the still white walls often stop time indefinitely until one feels trapped in some eternal void. The wailing winds serve as a reminder of reality and the losses created by the passage of time.
"Endure, Leah. Endure," my father whispers fiercely. "To endure is to prevail. You must prevail, Leah. The concert halls of Europe still await you."
In my mind I see his narrowed eyes, hard and determined like the unyielding noon sun and its blistering glare. It hurts and I grip my head. The strident noise of applause fills my ears. It is so loud and terrible I feel my bones shattering. My forehead and hands moisten with sweat under the oppressive heat of the mighty stage lights. I look up and I see a sea of curious, amused faces. A pulse drums in my temple. Everything spins with the devilish passages of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto—faster, faster, and faster…
And suddenly, it all stops. Tchaikovsky becomes as incomprehensible as the blankness of my mind.
The world hazes and dims, and all around me there are murky screens of water. I struggle with my breathing for a moment before giving up.
"You're destined for wonderful things, child. Don't fail me now. Don't fail me," my father murmured.
It is early morning and I am seated at my usual chair by the window. Two nurses have come to make my bed and bring me breakfast. I hunch and pretend to have fallen asleep. Their faces are always terrible to watch. Like the walls, they are closed and impersonal and still—like photographs that present inaccurate portrayals of living, animated things.
"Who is she?" I hear of one them whisper. The voice is still curious and full; she must be new.
"Oh hush, Maria. Just do your job."
"But why does she get all this special treatment—with her own room and all that?"
The older nurse murmurs lowly in a thin voice, "She's here on the personal recommendation of Lord Horder, Sir Winston Churchill's own physician. She's some once-famous prodigy, apparently. Come. Let us bring her to the day room. She's still having trouble walking after her last dose of ECT."
With awkward stiffness, the nurses pat me awake and help me into a wheelchair. I am handled like a watermelon: they treat me with impersonal vigilance in fear that I'd drop and burst otherwise.
The two women leave me in the huge day room with all the other patients. I sigh and move myself to a quiet corner.
Sometimes I think I am at the crossroads of life and death, in some out-of-the-way place where the air is too thin to sustain the delicate and the brittle, and where men walk about shrouded in murky layers of film.
I look out the window. It is a gray day. A flock of bids flies by, silhouettes dark against the sky. To where—to where do they fly?
For a moment I wonder if the birds would be able to pierce the sky, burst through it as if the world is a mere balloon. Once free, might they journey to the Elysian Fields?
It occurrs to me why I can't ever be free: to fly and escape the trappings of worlds, one must be as light and small and inconsequential as a bird. I was like that once, long, long ago. But over the years my body has been transmuted to gold by the concert halls of Europe. It is too weighty to fly.
I almost jump in my seat. "Let me be, Father," I murmur on instinct.
"Good morning, Ms. Kalinowsky." There is steel insistence in the voice, and so I turn reluctantly from the window. It's Dr. Freeman.
"I'm here to congratulate you on your tremendous progress, Ms. Kalinowsky. Tremendous progress! We're all very proud of you," he tells me. The words sound as carefully expressed as some advertisement tagline for a new product.
A year ago I might have retorted and snapped at him. But I am different now; I say nothing.
"Our records indicate that the series of insulin coma and electroconvulsive therapy with which we've treated you have been highly successful. Ms. Kalinowsky—" his voice inflects as his eyes bear into mine intently "—I am confident that you will make a full recovery. No, no. I am positive that with today's medical technology, you will rejoin the world. It is simply a matter of time."
Dr. Freeman leans close to me as if we share some wonderful secret. "Now, now Ms. Kalinowsky. You and I both know that you're no ordinary patient. A great artist like you owes it to the world to become active again; you must do everything within your will-power to get well again as soon as possible."
He smiles and watches me closely. It strikes me that his eyes are really two disks of mirror. The silvery orbs absorb and reflect everything with impartial accuracy. But nothing will ever take away their systematic hardness.
"Ms. Kalinowsky, I am aware that time slips unnoticed here at Long Grove. But oh, it slips, Ms. Kalinowsky, it slips. It is therefore both my aspiration and your obligation to ensure the speediest mean to your full recovery. Now, for some years there has been the emergence of a miraculous new technology. We call it frontal lobotomy. With this advancement, we doctors take it upon ourselves to correct God's unkind negligence."
I feel myself slipping away. Talks of medical treatments are no longer significant to me.
But a hand grips my elbow as Dr. Freeman implores, "You must listen, Ms. Kalinowsky! I can save you from the despair of madness—"
"—Mr. Freeman, my despair lies not in madness—"
"—Will you? Will you consider it? Frontal lobotomy will salvage your displaced life."
As I lay in bed, the howling winds knocking on windowpanes made me feel the absence of everything acutely. I was neither sleeping nor living, and the unfathomable darkness around me made the world too expansive and frosty. I was small and absurd, and my body and limbs disintegrated until I became something like Emerson's invisible eyeball. Except in the vast darkness I felt no kindred connection with the universe.
And now, in the bright morning light, I am back in my little room with the white glaring walls. My fingers quiver and I spill tea all over the dress I've donned especially for visitor's day.
A little knock interrupts my half-frantic efforts to rescue my dress.
"Ms. Kalinowsky, look who's here!" a young nurse announces. "It's your dear sister, Mrs. Harrington!"
"Call me Rachel," a warm voice pleads sweetly. I wring my hands gratuitously.
"Oh, Leah! Poor, poor Leah! Look at you!" Suddenly, a soft and scented head is weeping in my shoulder. I find myself unable to respond.
Moments later, with wide and teary eyes, she pulls herself away and kisses me on both cheeks. "How are you, Leah? Are they treating you well? You look frail."
She seats and helps herself to a cup of tea. Glancing at my little table, she lets out a surprised noise. "What is this you're reading? T.S. Eliot! James told me once that his work is quite inappropriate for young ladies. Too morbid!" She chuckles weakly.
I say nothing for a moment. Then, clenching my hands, I murmur, "How are you Rachel? When will you be expecting the baby?"
She blushes prettily and pats her still-flat middle. "Some time next May. I hope James shall return from the war by then."
"I wish you happiness, Rachel." Sitting here all fresh and pretty and dainty, my sister represents to me all the beauty and hope of the world.
"And I you sister!" She smiles sweetly. "Speaking of happiness, I was simply thrilled by my conversation with Dr. Freeman this very morning!"
I coil inwardly and briefly wish I were a snail.
"He told me about all the wonderful progress you've made. I always knew you weren't really mad! Leah, why, with this new medical advancement—what did he call it?—you can be back in the world by the year's end! Isn't science grand?"
There is wild expectancy in her face. She gazes at me as if I might be the long awaited oasis of salvation and rectitude.
"You will take this opportunity, won't you Leah? Imagine! In no time you'll be famous again! I can already see the newspaper headlines: 'Violinist Leah Kalinowsky an artistic sensation at Carnegie Hall!'" Her words are coming fast now, with a note of hysteria. "You could be performing once again with all the major orchestras of the world: Berlin, New York, London, St. Petersburg—wouldn't that be splendid and—"
"Rachel, you know I've given up the violin."
"No—no!" she cries. "How could you? You've such prodigious talent. Why, Fritz Kreisler once said that you're a genius of rare caliber! You can—I know you can—revive your playing and perform again!"
"No. No, I can't."
"What ever do you mean?" she demands, her cheeks flushed from agitation.
I sigh. "It's very hard for me to speak about such things, but I will try."
"You must understand that for me, playing the violin isn't about being the music prodigy, the magical fingers, the wonder-child, or the circus spectacle." I pause and stop my shaking hands. "Since I was young, the world has been a living thing to me. It breathed, pulsed, laughed, wept, and sang. I perceived it all keenly and the violin was a way for me to express my perceptions. It was the only way I could truly speak. Music was my voice because many things in the world cannot be expressed in plain words alone. I loved playing the violin; it was my other self."
"Why? I don't understand," Rachel whispers. "Why then do you insist on giving it all up?"
"Because, Rachel, I have become paralyzed. Oh, the world lives still, but I can no longer perceive its songs. How can I play my violin now? I am deaf in spirit. Music can no longer be my other self—how can it now that I've lost myself all together?"
Rachel is silent for a long, long time. Her pale shoulders quiver like a pair of injured doves. But finally she looks at me and mutters flatly,
"I'm disgusted by your flagrant selfishness. I have been, for a long time."
She rises from her seat and puts her hand on my cheek. "Leah, Father passed away last week."
I am outraged. "No! No, he has not! He visits me often—two days ago, in fact!" I stand as well and shake Rachel's hand off my cheek.
I reel suddenly and realize Rachel has slapped me. She is crying.
"Leah, oh Leah! Father has not visited you ever since you abandoned both him and the violin. Your rejection kept him away—it made him ill, terribly ill!" She is rocking herself as she weeps. "Oh, why can't you be strong like he was Leah? He did everything for you. We all did—the years spend at Paris just so you could study at the Conservatoire, and then at Berlin for you to be a pupil of Carl Flesch, and finally London for your first Queen's Hall recitals. Papa devoted his whole life to you! How did you think I felt, being the neglected second child all my life? How can you repay Papa's love and devotion with such cold selfishness?"
With a sob, she moans, "Oh, why must you be so weak and cruel? Think of Father and of the disappointment and sorrow he faced. It was what killed him. It was what killed him. He devoted himself to you, and you've killed him."
With a final look of pleading, she whispers, "Please, get yourself out of this mess. I don't want Papa to have died in vain."
And with that, she turns away and leaves, leaving me to sink in the remnants of catastrophe.
I was scared, but he held me firmly as we descended into the water. For a while, all was peaceful. But when a neighbor called from the riverbank, Father was momentarily distracted and I slipped from his hold.
I still remember the drowning sensation well: the hot flashes of terror—and then, nothing. There was a numbing, melancholy sense of calm as I sank slowly in the dark water, watching my hair sway idly by.
After Rachel's visit, I'm often drowning; I sink and drift towards nothing. There is no more air in my lungs. And all round me, there are murky screens of water.
I've also sought Dr. Freeman and agreed to a frontal lobotomy.
It is chilly today. The day room is nearly empty, for most patients have remained in the better-heated dorms. I am seated by the window again.
My violin lies on my lap. It is a sonorous Stradivarius with the voice of God, and its familiar mahogany finish brings tears to my eyes. I've been trying to play again, but I never get farther than etudes and flexibility exercises.
"My dear, come here," asks a thin, crackling voice reminiscent of empty whistling reeds. It is Old Marge. She's been at Long Grove ever since her husband died in the Great War. "My dear, can you play that violin well?"
"Not as well as I'd like."
"Well, no matter. Play something nice for me, will you?" she requests simply, her eyes luminous like the moon. "George is coming tonight to bring me home. I won't be here tomorrow. I'd like to leave this place with something fond to remember by."
"Will a simple melody suffice?" I ask, positioning my violin under my chin.
"This one's from my childhood," I tell her and begin to play.
The melody is a simple Hebrew lullaby. My grandmother had sung it to my mother when she was a child, and in turn my mother passed it on to me before she died.
As the melancholy song springs from my violin, I close my eyes and see my mother again. She is singing to me. I grab my skirts and begin to dance and twirl and whirl …
Whirl, whirl, whirl!
I realize that God has made the universe an enigma. There is no need to unravel the ambiguities.
And when the music fades away, Old Marge is crying. We look at each other and I know that my sorrows spoke to her and hers to me. And in this mutual console, everything seems easier to bear.
"Your music—it is beautiful, young woman!" Old Marge cries, her cheeks warm. Suddenly she looks young. "You must play in the concert halls of Europe someday!"
I smile and shake my head. "No—no. I want to play music. Just music."
Dr. Feldman hovers over me and I hear frantic voices in the distant background. I wonder if something's wrong before my vision hazes over and I am alone.
I hear my own voice now. It is reciting T.S. Eliot:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
I smile. I now understand why my performance for Old Marge shall the last time I will play the violin.
I hear the squawking of chicken and the distant rustle of ancient yew trees. My shoes are caked with mud. I look up—and realize I'm back in my little village in Poland.
Home at last, I think to myself.