A Short Story
I will never forget the sadness shining in her shimmering eyes. It was the twenty-first of November in the year of our Lord eighteen eighty-seven. I remember specifically that I had a hole in the left pocket of my suit pants. I recall this because repeatedly throughout the day, my pocket watch slipped and clattered to the floor. (Ah, dear me. Yes, thank you. That would be mine.) I remember thinking I needed to get it mended.
However, all such pithy things could wait for another evening. It was my usual habit to haunt the opera hall on dusty evenings like this. The air was ripe for a storm to calm the ruffled dust. But the night sky was clear once the sun kissed the horizon, leaving glowing trails of orange fire across our faces.
Alone, I let the man punch my ticket. He smiled at me crookedly. “Mr. Jackens? Nice to see ya again, sir. Will you be staying for the whole show?”
I gave a non-committing shrug and stepped past him, flowing inside with the crowd. (’Av a good time, sir!)
The air thick and wet, as if it had been pulled in too many times. I had to quickly suck several breaths to acclimate to it. At least, it was not as hot as it was in the summer. Then, flies buzzed around our heads. Around me, the crowd murmured and pulsed. They were a single, glittering being, pushing for their seats. A heavy scent of perfume prevailed over me, and I quickly moved away toward the staircase leading to the seat in balcony typically reserved for me. My shoes clicking on the steps, I fingered the hole in my pocket. I pulled back the curtain at the top, gladdened to observe an empty balcony. The ceiling arched above me, a pristine mural of golden angels meeting in Heaven. Just over my head, I knew from previous experience that a smallish angel sat, a young child, on a cloud. A very sad look filled her eyes. I had often wondered, in between events, what caused the poor thing to look so sad. Perhaps it was because, from her position, almost no one could see her ruddy face. I smiled at the thought, sitting down in cushioned chair.
Now to wait.
And I did not have to wait for long. Soon an anticipant hush washed over the crowd. Curious, I peered over the edge. The people below me continued shifting and rustling their silk. Like preening birds, I thought. How many of them were there to display their latest tailoring disaster rather than to listen?
Unfortunately, a large amount, I guessed.
But no more prattle. The room went silent as the doors shut behind us and the room went very dark but the spotlight on the stage. My gaze flicked up to it. There was no curtain and no orchestra. Only a solitary piano angled just so. From the backstage, someone moved. Out of the shadows, a pale hand pulled into the light. It was followed by an arm, a shoulder, and then a young woman.
She was so thin, a breeze could have carried her away. Black hair spilling down her back, With a dress as dark as ebony and skin as pale as ivory, she was the piano personified. I could just barely catch a glimpse of her wide, sad eyes. They reminded me of someone. The angel child, I thought. Elegance adorned her shoulders like a silk cloak.
And yet, as she stepped into the light the dust in the air seen floating clearly around her, a small smile lit my lips.
She was barefoot.
On the ground, I heard chuckles at this. A few sniffs.
The girl, a woman, really, gave us a half-interested glance and proceeded with light steps to the piano. Sitting down on the bench, she let her fingers dangle conspiratorily over the keys. And for a moment, she looked up. I could have swore she directed a mischievous smile at me.
But that was not possible.
The moment passed. A finger fell once on a key. One key. And another. A simple melody. I could have played it.
But then I saw the reason for that bit of a mischief in her smile. She paused, letting a note ring through the hall. We licked it up like ice cream from a melting cone. And then she began in earnest. The song was somber and melancholy, ranging from angry pain to despair, before lifting slightly in a victory. It went on and on, and I lost track of time.
Every movement she made was deliberate and flowing. She had attached herself to the piano like she was born there. Each sweep of her arm was a swell in the rhythm. Like the sea. Like the swaying of trees in the wind. Rhythm.
I did not realize I had left my chair until the last note finally fled. Gripping the edge of the balcony, I waited and waited, hoping for just a bit more like the addict I had become. But no music graced our ears.
The barefoot pianist stood swiftly, shut the lid over the keys, gave a gracious bow, and disappeared as the spotlight faded. I held my breath.
No more. That was it.
I was caught between wanting to shout in exaltation or break into tears. Never in my life had I heard something like that. Something so untainted. There were no words. Even now, I struggle to describe the song.
After several seconds of complete silence a splattering of startled applause started somewhere to the left, and soon the entire hall was applauding rapturously. I joined them, duly. I felt numb, lacking the music that had filled out veins just a moment before.
Who was the woman to charm the keys in such a way? I had to find out.
Yes. Who was she?
My mission decided, I gathered myself up and hurried down the steps. Everyone was exiting the hall for an intermission. I glanced at the clock. Had it really been an hour?
As I jostled my way through the crowd, I caught glimmers of their voices.
“It’s the youth these days. Can’t keep their time.”
“I really was looking forward to this, darling. Oh well.”
I stopped. Confused. Spun in a slow circle.
Had I heard them right? “Excuse me?” I stopped a smallish woman in a horrid shade of green. “Did you enjoy the show?”
She snorted and gave me an incredulous look. “Very funny, mister.”
“No one showed. We’re you not there?”
I blinked at the woman. “But… the pianist,” I said.
I lost my conversant in the crowd and grabbed another. “Sir. Did you see the pianist tonight?”
He cocked his head, confused. “I wish. A ruddy waste of grub, this was, I say.” He shook his head and moved off.
Distantly, I realized I was plugging the doorway. But I stayed still. How could they not remember?
“Ma’ma, you saw her, didn’t you?”
“You, sir? Surely you saw the woman in black on the stage tonight?”
No one. Not a single person remembered the performance.
Bewildered, I stepped into the street and stuffed my hands into my pockets. The hole again. My pocketwatch clattered to the ground, popping open as it did. Irritated and thoroughly baffled, I bent down to retrieve it. Straightening, I caught a glimpse of black and white disappear around the corner of the opera house. I froze. It couldn’t be.
Quickly, I stuffed the watch into the other pocket and scrambled forward. Feeling slightly ridiculous, I swung around the corner, half expecting the alleyway to be empty.
But there she was. Still barefoot, with shoes swung by their laces over her shoulders.
“Mam!” I cried. She stopped and turned, a look of surprise filling her eyes.
Now that I’d caught her attention, I realized I had no idea what to say. “Your… your performance was stunning.”
She smiled, still looking surprised. Her eyes were blue and still sad, I noticed. “You remember?” She said softly.
Gulping, I nodded. “Yes but…” How was I to put this? “No one else seems to.”
“Don’t be shocked.” She gave a little laugh that cracked. “They never do.”
With a frown, I stepped closer. “Why not?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Beauty is fleeting.” She sighed. “It can only be appreciated in the moment. Not through a camera lens, or conveyed on a page, you see?”
“They did not pay attention, too busy with their silly dresses.” She smiled at this. “Even now, your memory will be fading. My song only exists in the moment. No more. Longer than that, and it would be diminished. You have lasted longer than the others.” She pursed her lips. “You are a lover of beauty?”
“Good. Hold on to that.” The pianist turned to go but I spoke quickly.
“What is your name?”
She turned and gave a small laugh again. “I haven’t got one, darling.”
I blinked, and she was gone.
And with her, the melody of the song, playing through my head, faded and disappeared, leaving only an impression.
I never saw her again. Nor did I ever hear her song in an opera house. No one remembered her. But I did.
Sometimes, when I spent time at the ocean, I’d catch a sense of the song in the crashing waves, or in the rustling leaves of Autumn. Was she a nymph? A dream? Beauty itself?
Whoever she was, I never forget that day in November; the day I met the angel of the opera house. The barefoot pianist.