Tales of You and I: A Collection of Short Stories

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The Violin in the Grave

The violin’s strings quiver, the bow dripping with melody that falls into the air and reaches their eager ears. It’s sad, it’s happy, it’s fearful all at once. It wails and screeches and hums, the sounds playing one after another. It sounds like heaven, like water rippling across a winding river. It sounds like a violin. My violin.

“Do you remember how excited you were, during that concert?” Clementine says, looking fondly at the old photograph. “You practiced for hours, locked up in your room.”

I do remember. I remember how smooth the wood felt in my hand, the weight of it just right. I remember how my chin itched with longing whenever I wasn’t playing the violin, my violin. The music would lure me into a trance, until I couldn’t stop playing no matter how sore my wrists got or how much my ears rung. That violin was my life.

If only I knew where it was...

“Do you still have it?” Clementine asks. “You swore to be a violinist forever, did you not?”

“I did,” I say sadly. She hands the photo to me and I smile. There’s me, all dressed up in my purple dress. Violin sounds like violet, a little bit, Mom had told me the day before I went up on stage. You need a violet dress.

I still have the dress somewhere, tucked away neatly in a box lined with velvet. If I have a daughter, I’ll give it to her. “Chase your dreams,” I’ll tell her. “They like to run away from you.”

At least, mine did.

“I don’t know. It’s probably in the attic or something,” I say, snapping out of my trance. I give the photo back to her. “Put it in the family album,” I say. “I don’t need it.”

Clementine looks at me with pity. “I know it’s because of Mother, Pen,” she says. “But you can’t push the past away forever.”

“The past is in the past,” I say firmly. “It’s over. Mom’s gone. I don’t need to think about it anymore.”

I run upstairs before she can say anything else, trying not to trip over the staircase.

You have to chase your dreams. But sometimes, when they’re lost and forgotten, they eventually come back and chase you.

“Fourteen years old and you’re already going to your first concert!” Mom says with pride in her loud voice, swinging her arm around me and squeezing tight. I laugh along with her as we waltz through the formal section, looking for the perfect outfit.

“Violin sounds like violet, a little bit,” Mom says thoughtfully. “You need a violet dress.”

“But purple doesn’t match well with blonde hair,” I complain.

Mom rolls her eyes at me and ruffles my golden locks. Her hand is warm and strong against my head. “Your hair is black, and you know it,” she says, tapping my forehead. “I told you that hair dye will do you no good.”

“But you dye your hair, too.”

“That’s because it’s grey. I’m allowed to dye it if it’s grey. Now, how about that dress?”

The cold December air bites into my skin, managing to squeeze through the minuscule holes in my heavy coat. It digs into my flesh and stays there, a vicious creature made of ice settling in my arm. I rub my hands over my wrists and shake myself. The cold won’t come out.

The sky above is blue and welcoming, so that if one looked up and somehow forgot about the temperature, it might give the impression of a summer sky. Fluffy white clouds are scattered around in different shapes and sizes, some outlined in a shiny silvery lining from the sun. I stop in my tracks and look up, absentmindedly looking for patterns in the clouds like I used to when I was a kid. Mom would come outside with me and lay down in the grass. She could take a lumpy, shapeless cloud and find something in it when no one else could. Maybe that’s why she became a writer; she had such a big imagination.

My eyes tear up a little at the memories, but I brush them away and search for a shape. My eyes land on one cloud that’s big and bulky on one end and narrow like a stick on the other. The lumpy end is separated into two round shapes, with a waist-like piece in between.

A violin. That cloud is a violin.

I tear my eyes away and keep walking.

I don’t want to think about that violin.

“How about a little song to cheer me up?” Mom says with a smile. I can tell it’s forced, weak, never again strong like it used to be. She used to smile with large white teeth with the two front ones just a little bit crooked, the circle-shaped freckle on her cheek stretching into an oval as she grinned. But now it’s close-lipped and small. It’s sad.

So I play something sad.

The violin doesn’t wail mournfully, like it would on her funeral. It hums a soft lullaby, one filled with tears and sorrow and longing. Her brow furrows and her eyes grow wet. The bow stops on the strings and holds still, the hospital room eerily silent.

“Play something happy,” she whispers. “I need to be happy.”

I’m too broken to play one of my own happy songs, so I steal someone else’s. I know Mom’s favorite song from her childhood. I know how she smiles whenever she hears it on the TV, the way she’d dance a little when Clementine was watching it.

Old Macdonald always cheers her up. But today it just makes her nod meaningfully, then doze off into a gentle sleep while I sit beside her, holding her cold hand, waiting for her to wake up just so I can see her eyes come alive again.

“How about a free cookie, ma’am?” the lady at the stall says with a pleasant smile. “They’re our newest product. Care to try?”

I hesitate, my coffee cup warming my hand and attacking the ice monsters that have dug deep into my arms and legs. “I’m in a bit of a hurry,” I say.

“Won’t take a minute, it’ll go great with the coffee. Here.” She reaches into a box on the ground, giving me a large cookie wrapped in paper. “Enjoy, and come again!”

“Thanks,” I say, taking the cookie and hurrying off. I carefully put the coffee in my shoulder bag, praying it won’t spill and soil the phone I have inside. I unwrap the cookie and stare.

It’s shaped like a violin.

It’s a sugar cookie with icing, dark brown icing that looks like the exact shade of wood of my violin. The strings are made from tiny pieces of liquorish, the head decorated with small bits of candy.

I shake my head. It’s just a coincidence.

I’m about to bite off the end when I see a small cat staring at me from under a bench. His ginger coat is scrawny and thin, bald patches covering his legs. I can see his ribs through his coat, can almost feel the hunger that I know pinches at his stomach. He looks at me with wide yellow eyes, pitiful and helpless. I walk towards him and he shrinks back, his back arched and tail pointed upwards.

“It’s okay,” I whisper, sliding the cookie under the bench. “You need this more than I do, anyway.”

He sniffs at the cookie and takes a bite. “Try to eat some vegetables after that,” I say quietly, repeating Mom’s words. “A diet full of sugar makes the extra weight linger.”

He doesn’t even look up. I get to my feet and continue walking until I exit the main part of town. It’s colder here, and emptier. The coffee only scares the ice monsters away for a little while. Now they’re in my face, my hands, my feet. I shiver and sneeze.

Then I stop. There it is. The graveyard.

“But she loved hearing you play!” Clementine cries. “You have to play at her funeral, you just have to!”

“I don’t have to do anything,” I say firmly, slipping on a simple black bracelet. “She’s dead now. She won’t hear it.”

“Of course she will,” Clementine says gently. “Her spirit will hear it.”

“Pfft,” I say, making a face. “Spirits don’t exist. Can you hand me the hair dryer?”

She gives it to me, frowning. “Spirits do exist,” she says. “You can’t possibly believe that Mom is just... gone.”

“She is,” I say. “And we can’t do anything about it.”

“You can show everyone else how much Mom loved the violin,” Clementine says stubbornly. “You can show them how much it meant to her.”

It did mean a lot to her.

Every concert, every tiny performance, every song--she was there. She would stand there and cheer the loudest, even if I missed a note or fell flat on a verse when I occasionally sang along to its melody. She never cared if I failed, so long as I tried and intended to do better next time.

Maybe it’s time to honor that.

The violin screeches a high wail at the funeral, the bow moving quickly and smartly across the strings like a ballerina with graceful feet. It cries and screams and shouts, and almost everyone is crying, sobbing along with it as Mom’s coffin sits there in front of me.

I can almost feel her with me. Feel her longing. Feel her thirst for my music.

Maybe spirits are real, because the day after the funeral my violin was gone.

I can see them everywhere now. The pattern of the leaves on the tree, the way some are closer together than others. It looks like my violin. The few stones that litter the ground, or the funnily-shaped mushroom that I almost step on. They look like my violin, too.

Everything looks like my violin.

“Stop!” I cry, closing my eyes. “Just stop!” I drop to my knees, my coffee cup falling onto the grass and the little bit of beverage making a stain. It looks like a violin.

My violin.

I get up and leave the cup there. I don’t care if it’s littering. I don’t care about anything except for the thousands of violins staring at me from all directions, laughing at me, teasing me. They’re shouting out cruel words, cruel words that I can’t block out.

“It’s your fault she died!”

“You didn’t take care of her!”

“Why did you play that at the funeral? She deserved a happy song.”

“You lost your violin, the best gift she ever gave you.”

I block them out. I don’t listen. I run to Mom’s grave, the only grave that’s black. She wanted a black grave, she said, not a grey or a white one. And she didn’t want any words written on it. “A plain, black grave is all I need,” she said firmly just days before her death. “And no flowers. I don’t need dead plants wilting on my grave.”

But there’s something wrong with it. The earth rises in a small mound, in the shape of a...

I can’t say it. I can’t think about it.

It rises some more. The dirt breaks and crumbles and falls, something wooden peeking through. I know what it is. I reach for it and pull it out of the dirt, a violin-shaped hole now sitting in the front of my mother’s grave.

It’s my violin.

The bow is there too, tucked underneath the strings. I pull it out. My heart is going so fast, too fast, so fast that if it went any faster I’d fall asleep and never wake up. Just like Mom did. I’m shaking with fear and the ice monsters leave, replaced with a sinking dread.

“Spirits are real,” I whisper, and turn the violin over. There, scratched in the back as if by a knife, are the words:

I always liked your happy songs.

Play one for me.

I hold the violin to my chin and breath in deep. “Are you here, Mama?” I whisper, using the name I haven’t said since I was just a little girl.

The trees rustle in response, and the air grows just a little bit warmer. I pick up the bow. At first it’s screechy and dry, but slowly the music flows into a cheerful dance. The trees sway to the music, the grass rustles in the warm wind. For a moment the sky opens up and it’s a brighter blue than ever before, the sun shining warmly and the snow melting as if by magic. I should feel hot in my heavy coat but I don’t; I feel warm, comfortable, happy.

Because Mom is here with me, and that’s all that matters.

The violin is back in her grave, the dirt packed tightly above it. The happy music I played for her is in there, in the violin, etched into the wood so that she can listen to it whenever she wants. And I’ll play her a new happy song, year after year, until I’m dead too and we can listen to them together.

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