When I’ve got a new character sometimes they present themselves to me boldfaced, strident, standing on a cliff in their tailored or tattered clothing and prepared to jump, or climb down. I don’t have to do any work except type. They offer to show me the rest, but only I’m ready to watch and listen. Closely, though. They’re skittish, my characters. It’s almost as though they don’t think I’m ready to enter their dominion.
I’ve got a new one. She’s not as pretty as Justine but she’s much more balanced (with a few exceptions – aren’t we all made up of neurotic and annoying exceptions?)…
Anna always closed her eyes when she heard classical music. Her family traveled too much, moved around too much, were too much like Bedouins in their routines for her to be able to do any formal training or any formal appreciation, but she still closed her eyes when she heard it. She would have liked to have played the cello.
Before her parents decided to farm in Alaska (which she of course thought was utterly loony), they had lived in Baltimore for around six months. This was as close as a long time home that Anna had had in her sixteen years. She loved her school, she loved the smelly big city, she loved all the skin tones and accents and tin rusted cars that shoved their noses all over the sidewalks. Anna did well in all ten schools she attended during her secondary education, but she thrived at the Baltimore school. Academic music instructors were hard to come by in public schools at the time, especially in the small country schools that she usually briefly attended before her parents packed up and moved on to another town. Her folks ran little newspaper stands at train depots. Her father would handle the periodicals, the dry goods, the accounting. Her mother made the coffee to sell and warm things to eat for the travelers. They were proud that Anna had seen the country from Abbot, Maine to Astoria, Oregon. That her childhood was peppered with diverse experiences and people, but they sensed that the girl wanted roots, even whisp-thin ones.
Anna did want roots. Alaska wasn’t what she had in mind, though. Her parents’ plans were never what she had in mind. In Baltimore the school did have a full-time music instructor who played cello with the Baltimore symphony. He would bring in various musicians and Anna and her schoolmates could try out all of their instruments. She loved them all, but especially her instructor’s cello. It was warm. It had a round and full body like a curvaceous woman (she herself was all sinew and railroad tie thin), and its voice was amber, warmth, and glow. When she struck a note clearly it felt like she was vibrating straight down to the center of the Earth. When her instructor played she felt the eyes of God watching from the back of the class, approving and closing at the pretty parts just like Anna did.
About a week before she moved with her family to Alaska to help grow giant vegetables and sell them to gold mines and armies, the music instructor brought a record in to play for the class. Anna felt like there was no more handsome man in the Universe, no one could wear black slacks and sweater vests and wear a trim beard like he could. His beard was an oddity for that time, most men were clean shaven and Brillo creamed to a high gloss. He was rough. He was passionate. He was thirty-five. He was something shining and perfect the day that he brought the record in, it was early Spring, there were buds on the cherry trees outside the iron framed windows. Anna sat straight at her desk, ceasing her typical music class activity of picking at her pilled angora sweater while trying not to stare at the instructor.
He went on to explain that this symphony was new that he was about to play, and that it was rare to be listened to by American ears because it was from the USSR. Several of the boys whistled low, their fathers talked about that stuff at home.
“It’s not a secret that I have it, I received it innocently enough from one of the violinists who just returned from Paris. One of his flatmates gave it to him to take back and share with us at the symphony. He did. And now I’m sharing it with you. It’s a children’s story, and though you all are older than children, it’s still enjoyable at any age. There’s a story that goes along with it, too…” and he fumbled with some sheaths of paper on his desk, shifting them to his chair, until he unearthed a small brown book with Russian letters written in gold on the cover. There was a small illustration of a peasant boy holding a duck. “I can read Russian, so I can read along and explain the characters. Each instrument takes on a role and has a theme to go with their role. There is a young boy, named Peter, he is the strings. There is a wolf, who is the French horns…there is a – “ the instructor strode to the blackboard and wrote out in chalk each of the characters with each of their corresponding instrument section.
Peter = strings
Bird = flute
Wolf = French horns
Grandfather = bassoon
Hunters = woodwinds
Gunshots = timpani and brass drums
Cat = clarinet
Duck = oboe
“Why don’t I just play the record? We don’t have much time left today.”, he smiled as he wiped his long fingered hands free of chalk dust on a red cloth before handling the rare recording again. Anna felt greedy at the notion of hearing a new recording and new classical music aside from the smatterings that she’d heard in free concerts in the towns and cities she had been forced to live in.
“I’ll read the story in English, so you can follow.” Anna sincerely wished he would read some of it in Russian, but she knew that Russian was not a good language to share your knowledge of with students at the moment. She wanted to sit at his home and listen to him speak it. To her. While she didn’t have any clothes on.
The instructor held the record with such care, slowly bringing it to the school’s ancient gramophone, lowering the needle to the fragile black surface of the record’s surface, and then began to translate on sight the small accompanying Russian story book as the record began.
“This is the story, of Peter and the Wolf. Each character in this tale is going to be represented by a different instrument of the orchestra…for instance, the bird will be played by the flute, like this -“
Anna instinctively closed her eyes as the flute began the bird’s simple trill. It couldn’t be helped. Once she heard the music she was instantly sent somewhere else and couldn’t be contacted from that dimension until the music stopped. There she rolled down hills and kicked her heels until she floated a foot or two above pavement. She lived through tragedy and ecstasy along with the story of the music. The complex children’s tale, with its undertones of terror and overtones of joyful youth brought her directly into the cold woods of Russia with Peter, the hunters, and the slinky wolf, licking its sensual mouth after devouring the animals that Peter loves.
She was unaware of the rest of the class, who were giving off airs of boredom and thoughts of the weekend. By the time Peter’s theme ran across the record, with its minor chords and sweet violins she was already in her other place. A place she could always carry with her, from Baltimore to Palmer, Alaska, and allow the tears to come to her eyes and the memory of that handsome music instructor warm her silent evenings after her parents had gone to bed in their cold, simple beds. She remembered something she learned in history. That Alaska used to be owned by Russia, and that it shared its climate and birch trees. Her mouth turned upwards at one corner, and she was suddenly ready to leave Baltimore. She had heard there were still many wolves in Alaska, and that they circled towns and threatened livestock. She also knew that they were beautiful, that their eyes glowed amber, and that there were hunters who kept them at bay. She was fascinated and she was ready.
I’m aware now that this needs more. But it came out as it wished, and though Anna is still a bit of a vapor to me, she’s starting to materialize. My writing is an exercise in divining these people out of the corridors. Sometimes I feel like a medium at a Victorian spiritualist gathering. Purple turban and all. Sorry if you’re not buying it, but there really is someone shaking the chandelier.