Playing for Amarante

Issue #65
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I first caught sight of Amarante in the sea of pale silk that glimmered in the low light of the concert hall like pearls underwater. She wore carmine.

Even from my poor vantage on stage, that color spoke its name. Would that it had also spoken—what? A premonition? A warning?

A carmine bodice, auburn hair caught up with combs of amber, and a rapt, transported stillness. She leaned forward from the second row, listening. My foot on the treadle slowed and stopped, my hands stilled against the glass rims. Ethereal tones from the armonica lingered, mingled, sustained themselves into haunting disquiet. The last reverberation died away.

The concert hall held its breath, and I held mine.

In the wash of rising silk and waistcoats and stunning, concussive applause, I caught one flutter of falling. The woman on the second row spilled into the aisle. A flash of carmine pooled on the floor.

I remember leaping from the bench. The applause trebled. I ran to the edge of the stage, but already I had lost her. The crowd closed over her without a ripple.

My instinct was to find her, she who was no one to me but a listener in a crowd of hundreds. Even then, before the threads of my life began to unravel, when my innocence was complete and my heart untroubled, I trembled at the intensity of my response.

I would have sworn on my life that I had never seen her before, but I startled nearly out of my skin when my own voice whispered in my ear that her name was—is—Amarante.

My patroness the Comtesse Sophie de Grasse parades me through the concert hall foyer. Her skirts swish down the grand stairs, and her open bodice breathes perfume: essences of iris, jasmine, and orange blossom.

I open the coach door and lift her by a gloved hand. We sit facing one another. It would be a mistake to ask Sophie about the woman. The way she strokes my knee, I can tell her mind is on other things.

“I have a surprise for you,” she says. Her face is aglow this night, and she looks the age she pretends to be.

“Oh?”

“We have an invitation to dine with Madame Geoffrin.”

Even as a newcomer to Paris I have heard of Mme. Geoffrin. She is the most famous hostess in all of Europe. “At the Monday salon?”

“No!” Sophie pulls me closer. “Tonight!”

Now I understand the blush that glows from her cheeks and neckline. The most preeminent salon in Paris has rearranged its schedule for us.

“You are the guest of honor,” she says. Her eyes sparkle. “Joseph Haydn will be there! He’s here for one night—rumor has it the head of the Loge Olympique orchestra hopes to persuade him to write a Paris symphony—but Madame Geoffrin has taken great pains to make sure no one knows. He asked to meet the young virtuoso who’s turning Paris inside out. Can you believe it? This could be our gateway to Vienna!”

Vienna. Winter home of PrinceNikolaus Esterházy, builder of palaces with gold-plated halls, theaters dwarfed by murals of Apollo, and sponsor of the finest orchestra in the world. Suddenly Sophie’s dream of introducing me to Haydn’s patron seems dizzyingly real.

Her words penetrate too quickly. I am to play the armonica for Joseph Haydn. The most celebrated composer in Europe. Tonight. Sweat turns to ice on my skin.

The carriage jolts to a stop, and Sophie slides into my lap. She kisses me deeply. “Carry yourself like an artist.” She smoothes the ruffles of my shirt.

I am dizzy with perfume and the rush that answers Sophie’s touch.

Vienna is a dream; meeting Haydn, delirium. Perhaps one day, to train under him and play alongside the best musicians in the world with Apollo’s reflected glory falling over us. In all my life, there will never be another chance.

I whisper a prayer in my mother’s rustic dialect.

The coachman opens our door, and we step out.

The bellman announces us as “Monsieur Persèe Durand and the Comtesse de Grasse.”

The inverted order of our names arrests me until Sophie gives me a nudge, and I remember that in this room, on this night, it is my name that matters.

The drawing room is draped with brocade and tassels in shades of sea foam. Niches hold potted orchids, gilded cages with rare birds, and chaise lounges where the silken curves of the old aristocracy brush against the rumpled waistcoats of the intelligentsia.

A great mirror hangs above a marble fireplace, doubling movement, guests, and light.

A woman with a long white braid draped over her shoulder sweeps toward us. “Welcome, Comtesse! Monsieur Durand, a pleasure.” She presses Sophie’s hand in both her own.

“Madame Geoffrin.” Sophie’s voice is breathless.

Our hostess, the most coveted contact in Paris, holds a hand to me. I kiss it.

Madame Geoffrin laughs. “What pretty manners! I see your hand in this one, Comtesse.”

Sophie smiles at me and links her arm in mine. “No, I’m afraid he came to me this way. I have only taught him bad habits.”

“But what a lovely bouquet your bad habits make, Comtesse.” Sophie and I turn to see a man in a well-cut dress coat sweep a dashing bow.

“Monsieur Franc La Ronge, philologist, playwright, philanderer, poet to the Hapsburg court.”

“Madame Geoffrin exaggerates. My poetry is doggerel.” La Ronge kisses Sophie’s hand. “How is your husband, Comtesse?”

Sophie colors prettily. “At home, poor man. Managing distillation. Perfume is a demanding mistress.”

“I would not want any other kind,” says La Ronge.

My head is spinning. This La Ronge fellow pens verse for the Empress. How many heads of state are but one degree away from the guests in this room?

Mme. Geoffrin touches my arm. “I have a place for you in the great room.” She pulls me away, and I glance back only once at Sophie. She does not look for me.

Heads turn as I cross the room with Mme. Geoffrin. I pass faces as familiar as the profiles on currency. They stare because I am out of place, I think, but then a second thought sends bright hot needles across my skin. Perhaps they stare because they know exactly who I am.

The most beautiful and powerful men and women in all of Europe know my name.

The most beautiful save one. I search the room and find every shade but carmine.

“Madame Geoffrin,” I venture. “Did you attend this evening? There was a woman in the second row. Did you see her fall?”

Mme. Geoffrin inclines her head toward me. “I was not in attendance, but surely my guests would have mentioned anything untoward. The second row, you say?”

“Yes. She wore carmine.” For no reason at all, I blush.

“I will inquire discretely for you.”

“Thank you, Madame.”

Mme. Geoffrin leads me to a curtained alcove lined with low benches. Another great mirror catches the reflection from the other room. Below it sits an inlaid stand the size of a sewing table. The stand conceals the instrument, the armonica. A chair waits for me.

A man steps out of the shadows.

“Monsieur Haydn,” says Mme. Geoffrin.

Every hair on my head turns to glass.

“Monsieur Durand,” she says.

My hand shakes in his grip.

“A pleasure, Durand,” says Joseph Haydn. “Now, if you please, Madame Geoffrin, I cannot endure another moment’s wait. Show me the instrument.”

Mme. Geoffrin opens the case. The armonica flares in the candle light, graduated glass cups nested on a spindle.

“Ingenious,” says Haydn. “I had not envisioned it arranged horizontally.” Some of the rims are painted gold. “For the black keys?” he asks.

She nods and I can see she is proud of the instrument. It is a wonder. “Please, Monsieur Durand.” She invites me to sit.

I settle on the bench and arrange my hands. Mme. Geoffrin brings me a bowl of water, and I wet my fingers.

“It’s played like a piano,” I tell Haydn. “The sound is the same as that made by a damp finger drawn across the rim of a water glass. See how the glasses spin when I pump the treadle below? Put your finger here.” I show him middle C.

Haydn dips his hand and presses his finger to the glass. A clear, high tone fills the room.

I make room for him on the bench, and he lays his hands on the rims. A jangled chord. He frowns and tries again. “Better,” I tell him.

Haydn picks out a simple tune, one of his own composition. I blush. This is Joseph Haydn. What am I thinking, correcting him?

By now, guests have trickled into the alcove. The music draws them. I glance up into the mirror looking for Sophie, but she must be in some other room. Perhaps she’s found some shadowed niche with La Ronge. I should not blame her. Opportunities come but once, and how can I feel abandoned when I have left her for Joseph Haydn?

Haydn finishes his tune and picks out a few more notes. “Ingenious. I’ve heard street performers play the glasses in London, but this instrument makes those look like toys.” He returns to middle C. “Such a disorienting timbre. Almost celestial, this sound. It lingers like a harp strung with starlight.”

Mme. Geoffrin brings her chair close to Haydn. “Dr. Mesmer lent it to us.” I follow her eyes to a man with a tight vest and a heavy German face. Surely it cannot be the Dr. Mesmer, the famed animal magnetist, but then again, I remember where I am.

Mme. Geoffrin turns toward him. “Tell me, Dr. Mesmer, in your medical opinion, does the armonica drive its listeners insane?” She strokes her braid.

Mesmer leans forward. “My dear lady. Each discovery in this age of overheated imagination spawns a multitude of rumors. The proof or disproof can only come from experiment.”

Mme. Geoffrin widens her eyes theatrically, delighted. When she speaks, every word is warmed by her smile. “Then by your logic, we shall run our own experiment tonight. What do you think, my guests, shall we risk ourselves in the name of science?”

Voices cry out in playful assent.

“Will you play for us, Dr. Mesmer?” asks Mme. Geoffrin.

“No, what a waste. Let us hear the boy play,” says Dr. Mesmer.

Haydn relinquishes his seat.

All the emotion that hovered on Mesmer’s words descends onto me. I wet my fingers and settle my hands over the rims. Looking up into the mirror, I see all the guests from both rooms spilling into the alcove. Sophie is there. Sophie on La Ronge’s arm. My eyes jump to Haydn’s frown. Mesmer’s intense gaze. There is no safe place to look.

I close my eyes and play. And while I play, the music closes over me. I lose myself. But in the music, somehow a stray thought surfaces. Might the woman in carmine appear when I open my eyes? Amarante. My heart, for no reason, lodges in my throat.

Only as the song nears its end do I risk a glance at my audience. Haydn’s eyes are closed. Sophie’s cheeks glisten with tears. Mesmer watches me in the mirror.

But then I see a movement behind Mesmer’s head. Is it she? For a moment I think it is a trick of the doubled mirrors, that I’ve caught a glimpse of myself reflected from the other room. But reflections do not wear strange clothes. The man stands in the back of the room. His eyes are closed, and his jacket is torn. His head is bleeding.

My hands go still against the rims.

The man with my face opens his eyes. They meet mine in the mirror. It isn’t just that he looks like me. He is me. Confusion and recognition flash between us in the space of a heartbeat.

The last reverberation dies away.

The man with my face slumps to the floor.

No one sees him fall.

Haydn’s hand is on my shoulder, and Sophie’s lips brush my ear. “Rapturous, Persèe.”

Applause fills the room. My ears fill with the ocean roar of my pulse. The sensation of falling, a flash of carmine….

I lean past my mistress, past the wigs and upswept coiffures. The man is gone. No blood on the parquet floor. No proof that he ever existed.

If ever I needed sobriety, it is this night. Sophie bids me adieu at Café Procope, a stone’s throw from my drafty apartment. Even this late, the café is crowded. I slide past the women in low-cut dresses recruiting for the army.

My friends have a table in the back. Coffee cups and papers scrawled with diagrams cover its surface. Moreau and Laurent shout over one another, so far gone in their debate that they scarcely pause as I arrive. Saber smokes a cigarette.

“Durand.” Saber kicks out a chair for me. He hails the waitress to bring fresh coffee. “Welcome back to the bourgeoisie.”

I drop into the chair and bury my face in my hands. “If you were going insane, would you want to be self-aware?”

“Gibbering, drooling insane?”

“Visions of your own death. In this case, it looks as if I’ve been trampled by a carriage.”

Saber props his feet on my leg. “I suppose foreknowledge might be helpful in the event you’d like to prevent your untimely death.”

Laurent holds up a hand to Moreau as he turns to me. “Self-awareness is a fundamental construct of man. Giving it up would imply loss of self-hood, ipso facto, insanity.”

“I disagree,” says Moreau, his face flushed and his eyes slightly out of focus. “Man’s natural state is a tabla rasa, a blank slate. Giving up unwanted knowledge would bring him closer to the ideal.”

Laurent cocks his head at me. “What’s making you insane? Is it the artificiality of civil society? The corruption of the aristocracy? I bet it’s a woman.”

“No,” says Moreau. “It’s his artistic temperament. All that Sturm und Drang.”

“There was a woman,” I say, because it is only here that I remember her. It is easier to speak of her than whatever it was that happened with the armonica.

My friends push their coffee cups aside.

“She sat in the second row.” Again I see her fall. Carmine spilling across the floor. An awful connection sparks. “My God.”

“What?” Laurent jars my elbow.

My mangled self, the woman falling…. “I think I saw her death.”

The three of them fall very quiet against the noise of the café.

Saber asks, “You saw a stranger’s death? A woman you’ve never seen before?”

“Amarante.”

Laurent leans forward. “Was she noble or bourgeoisie?” Saber and Moreau elbow him. “What? The last thing he needs is to get involved with two titled women.”

I see his point. Sophie would destroy her. She would drop me. I would lose Vienna.

“I don’t know,” I answer.

“Do you have reason to think these visions are more than your imagination?” asks Saber.

I turn my cup. I feel again the pressure of Mesmer’s eyes, the thrill of meeting Haydn, the stimulation I hold at arm’s length every moment I spend with Sophie. “No.”

But then, why does her name linger like perfume? Why did I hear my own voice whisper it in my ear? I shake my head to clear it.

All three of them relax. Moreau downs the last of his coffee. Laurent squeezes my shoulder. Saber swings his legs off my lap and finishes his cigarette.

“You spend too much time on music,” says Laurent. “Come sit with us more often.”

I shake my head. “My star is rising. It will be more music and worse company for me, I’m afraid.”

Saber rises with me. “Gentlemen,” he nods to the others. He drapes an arm across my shoulders and walks me out the door.

The night is warm, and humidity makes halos around the lamps. “I’ve thought about your question,” he says.

“Oh?”

He stops and lights another cigarette. Then he returns his arm to its usual place. “The self-aware are not insane.”

I match my steps to his. “Rationalists do not believe in visions.”

The end of his cigarette glows. “True. And your experience corresponds to the typical hysteria of an overheated mind. Nevertheless, I’m escorting you home.”

“Whatever for?”

“Let’s just say I appreciate the potential of carriages.”

I rise early enough to spend the dregs of morning combing the streets of Paris. My plan is unformed, my steps, aimless. But my eyes roam the passers-by.

Who is she? A real woman in the crowd, a phantom, a vision?

With every turn of auburn hair, my breath catches. So many tragic faces. None of them hers. None of them wear carmine.

Her name came to me like armonica music on the wind.

I have never told Sophie, for fear she would end her patronage, but the songs I play come in snatches, in daydreams, like glimmers of gold beneath the sea. Fleeting. Uncontrolled. I have tried to capture them on paper. The songs slip through my hands. Only when I play can I remember.

I never studied the armonica. When first I laid my hands against the rims, the songs pulled me along. The songs that wander through me like zephyr-winds.

As now this woman wanders through my mind.

My rambles last too long, and I am nearly late for the evening’s engagement. A coach is waiting. I hurry upstairs to brush out my jacket and tie my hair with a black ribbon. Sophie was in a strange mood last night, and I have no wish to rile her. The last musician who did so never played this city again.

The house is deep in Old Paris, where the avenues slide into the curves of the river. I sprint up the steps.

The hostess herself greets me at the door. “Welcome, Monsieur Durand. We have a special place for you.” The woman is kind. My smile is heartfelt.

A liveried servant leads me to a dining room lit with crystal and roses. I am seated across from Sophie, who beams at me. Beside her is Franc La Ronge.

The young woman on my right turns to me with eyes like stars. “Monsieur Durand, your music transports me.” Her dress is the rose of the table flowers, the perfect hue to accent her delicate blush. Matching roses adorn her hair. The hostess’s daughter.

“The pleasure is mine.” Politeness requires me to kiss her hand.

From my left, a tap on my arm draws my attention to an older woman with a fantastic coiffure crowned with pheasant feathers. It balances her décolletage. Her accent is Prussian. “Tell me, musician, do you dance as well as you play?”

Across the table Sophie’s smile has turned brittle.

Dinner becomes performance. Under Sophie’s eye, I elude the Prussian’s overtures and redirect the young hostess’s tender admiration. Across the table, Franc La Ronge whispers in Sophie’s ear.

At last the meal is ended. The hostess claps her hands and invites everyone to the music room. She pulls me aside.

“This armonica belonged to Marie Antoinette when she was a young princess in Vienna. Monsieur La Ronge was able to procure it for us.”

I gaze at the instrument. A piece of Vienna. An instrument made for royalty. I try not to caress it.

I take my seat facing the intimate audience. The guests drift in around me. The only sound is the rustle of petticoats. I have made my mind clear and calm, but my heart remembers her name. Amarante, will I see you tonight? My heart accelerates. It is all I can do to contain it within my chest.

My hands to the rims, my foot to the treadle, I play.

From the first note, I see her. Again, she sits in the second row. Shadowed eyes, that yearning posture. Her hands clench in her lap. She looks at no one else, only me. She searches my face, hopeful, anxious. Frightened.

I play the chorus three times just to watch her. With each repetition, I grow more anxious. Whatever she seeks, it is precious. I would take her hand, but of course that is impossible. Her need calls to me, and I want with all that is in me to answer.

For the first time, I allow our eyes to meet. I allow myself to hope, to anticipate—what?

Confusion and disbelief bloom in her face. I miss a note. She crumples forward with silent sobs.

If I have an immortal soul, a piece of it dies in this moment.

Petticoats rustle. I look up to see I am losing my audience. Sophie frowns at me. My notes have wandered. I pull together a last melodic flourish and still the rims.

Looking out into the room, I search the second row in awful expectation of crumpled carmine. Instead, I see the man with my face. He wears an unbalanced smile and powder-burns on his lips.

Saber smokes and paces. “You’ve never been suicidal.”

“No.” I cross my arms and lean out the apartment window. “I dislike firearms.”

“Did you see what kind it was?”

“I didn’t see it at all.”

Saber draws deeply on his cigarette and then tosses it into the street. “I think you should stop playing the instrument.”

My head is shaking. “That’s not an option.”

Saber steps away from the window. He brings me a broadsheet. Squeezed between milliner’s advertisements and notices of land for sale is a block headline:

PHYSICIAN USES ARMONICA TO CAUSE, CURE INSANITY, WAKE THE DEAD!

The short article that follows describes Dr. Mesmer’s sojourn in Paris.

“You think I’m calling ghosts?”

“I think you need to speak with an expert. Either your mind is damaged and you need a cure, or your instrument is dangerous and you should stop playing it.”

“Dangerous? How can you say that? Vienna draws closer with every performance!”

“Let Mesmer help you! We have his address.” He thumps the paper.

“To stop playing would be madness.”

He crosses his arms. “You’ve seen the woman again, haven’t you?”

I do not answer.

“Tell me you’re not falling in love with her. She’s an apparition.”

“She comes to me for some purpose.” Heat rises in my face.

Am I in love with her? I want to see her again, even if she is an apparition, even if seeing her in pain hurts almost as not seeing her at all. Is this what love feels like?

“Why do you insist she’s real?” Saber asks.

I search for a rational explanation for him, for myself. The closest I come is a half-truth. “Since I’m not dead, I can’t be seeing ghosts of myself. They must be visions. Why would one be a vision and not the other? If I find out who she is, perhaps I can save her life.”

What I will not say even to myself is that I cannot walk away from her. The intensity of my need to find her shakes me to my foundation. “Wouldn’t you want to help if you foresaw someone’s death?”

Saber turns away. He folds the news sheet like a handkerchief and tucks it into my breast pocket. He presses it there, his hand against my heart.

I go to the river and find an artist. For fifty sous, he sketches a portrait from my description. I study his rendering of carmine dress and auburn hair. It is inexact, but it is the first step toward finding Amarante.

The marshals examine the portrait, but with so few facts, they assure me an investigation would be impossible. They direct me to the morgue.

The ornate halls of the waiting mortuary yawn into vaulted ceilings that echo with lost voices. It reminds me of an empty concert hall, alive with the memory of stirred air. Strings of bells run from the feet of corpses to the desks of attendants listening and waiting for signs of life. The further I walk, the deeper fear sinks below my skin. The only music here is the stir of bells as I pass. I find no whisper of Amarante.

Outside, I lean against the stone façade. Warm, bright daylight throws its arms around me. I breathe like a drowned man. She must be alive. There’s still time.

But time runs finite through the glass, and I must keep moving.

As I walk, I consider every option. If I hit one more dead end, I may have to resort to asking Sophie. If anyone knows every beautiful face in Paris, it is my patroness. Perhaps if I showed her the portrait, if I explained, she would trust me.

I want to believe, but I have seen how many faces Sophie wears. The strain is beginning to show around her eyes. The dream has drawn so near. She will not welcome complications.

I will try one more avenue, at least.

There is a dress shop on Rue de Ton. The proprietor remembers every gown she made this season. Not one among them was carmine.

“Try Mon Petit Chou,” she tells me. “They specialize in exotics.”

I memorize the address and step out into the street, and it is then the music comes to me. My armonica music. This time, it is so strong and achingly bittersweet it slides like a knife between my ribs. My feet catch on cobbles. For a long moment, I fall.

The river closes over me. I’m drowning in song. The cold shock. Water fills my lungs. The song, the song. My lips move, but all I hear is music. It has never been this loud before.

Someone pulls me out.

Gasping on the cobbles, I try to drive the song from my mind. But then, it has never been mine to control. My memory twists back to Amarante’s face.

Someone tells me I should go to the hospital.

I never thought the music could be dangerous until now.

Where does it come from?

The song works its barb deeper into my heart. I feel as if I am the instrument. A lifetime, a heartbeat, and it is over.

Someone checks my pockets and finds Mesmer’s address. They lift me up into a coach.

The coach jostles. Soon the tangled streets spread out into Old Paris. When we arrive, I check the house number. It is the home of the hostess from the last concert, and the driver assures me he has made no mistake.

The front door opens, and a maid pulls me in. “They are waiting for you, Monsieur Durand.” She eyes my disarrayed clothes.

Questions stumble off my tongue, but half of them are answered at a glance.

The sitting room is full of women: the hostess, her admiring daughter, and Sophie. An armonica faces their semicircle.

I walk among them half-convinced I’ve slipped into a dream. Cold sweat beads my skin.

The hostess gives me both hands to kiss, but her eyes are worried. “I’m so glad you could come on short notice, Monsieur Durand.”

I kiss the daughter’s hand.

Sophie leans in as I brush her cheek. “Where have you been?”

“Forgive me. I must have missed your message.”

Sophie’s words are missed notes in an already-mangled refrain. “If you missed the message, then why are you here?”

I glance at the hostess’s daughter and damn myself in Sophie’s eyes.

“It’s just a mistake,” I whisper urgently. “I had the wrong address. I’ve been all day running errands, and I must have given the driver yesterday’s address.” But every word I say is a nail in my coffin.

Sophie reaches into her purse and hands me an envelope with Madame Geoffrin’s seal. My heart sinks.

“Another assignation,” says Sophie.

I slip the letter from its envelope. It reads, My inquiries returned negative.

I want to show it to her, risk her jealousy and explain everything, but this is not the place. The glitter in her eye makes me wonder if she’s been taking belladonna.

“Monsieur Durand, would you care for refreshment before you play?” the hostess says.

Sweat trickles down my back. I loosen my cravat. “Water, please.”

I cannot look at Sophie’s over-dilated eyes. I cannot look at the hostess’s daughter. I fix my attention on the hostess. There is no chair for me, only the armonica bench.

I down the water and take my place. My body tenses. This time I know what I will see. Amarante hears what I play. Could it be she hears as I do, music from elsewhere caught on the wind? Does she hear it so strongly that it drowns out the sound of a team of horses, or crackle of fire or rush of the Seine? If that is true, every time I play, I put her life in danger.

“I cannot do this.” My voice is harsh, even to my ears. Hoarse. Ragged.

The daughter stiffens. Sophie’s cheeks redden.

The hostess rises and extends her hand. “Come,” she says, when I remain transfixed.

I push back the bench and hurry after her. We pause in the next room.

“You are overtired,” she says. “You’ll burn out if you keep this pace.”

I nod, and all I comprehend is gratitude. “Perhaps I can come next week and play a piano concert.”

The hostess hesitates. “Didn’t Sophie tell you? Next week you’ll be gone. Joseph Haydn has invited you to Vienna.”

Vienna. I press a hand to the wall to stop the world from tilting.

“Sit down, dear boy!”

“I have so much to do.” And then I remember. “I have to see Dr. Mesmer. Today, if possible. I had this house as his address. Do you know where he is?”

“Why, he’s gone to see dear friends in Versailles. But he’ll be back tonight to collect his things. It’s possible he might have a moment for you then.”

I almost cannot speak. “Please tell him it is urgent.”

“Of course. And congratulations on Vienna.”

But then I remember: I can never play again. Every song risks Amarante.

I swallow a laugh before it swallows me.

That night I come to Mesmer’s rooms through air as thick as sable. A maid takes me in through the back door. It would be best if no one knew of my treatment.

The room is bare except for the armonica. Mesmer’s eyes are bright with interest. It is impossible to say which gives me more unease.

“They say it is possible for music to cross between worlds. Yours is the first case I will have the chance to study personally.” He takes my hand and bids me sit while he makes passes over my body. One hand hovers over my head, my chest, my abdomen. He transfers to a low stool and passes his hands down my arms and legs and feet.

“I find no blockage,” he tells me. He makes a second pass. “You have very strong animal magnetism. Perhaps that is what draws the ghosts.”

The hairs on my skin rise. “Ghosts? Not visions?”

“The instrument has never induced visions.”

I close my eyes. “But if what you say is true, I saw ghosts of myself.”

He moves closer until his knees touch mine. “You do not think this is the only reality, this world we can see? Whole worlds emerge and collapse between one decision and the next.” He gazes deeply into my eyes. Pressure on my thumbs sends convulsions up my arms. “Just let it happen.”

A peculiar sensation rises from the base of my thumbs. I do not want to believe that Amarante is a ghost. How can it be true? Every time I play, she listens as if her heart is breaking. Could it be it is not the music that moves her, but helplessness? And have I been risking her life? What if, like me, she is alive, even though I see her ghost?

Mesmer moves his hands and my disorientation intensifies. Fluid moves beneath my skin. A tide rises up into my head and washes me cold. Mesmer’s hands drop away.

“Now,” he says, “to the instrument.”

My eyes snap open. “No, Doctor. Not that.”

He holds up one finger. “To cure madness, we must first provoke it.”

My hands shake. “You said they were ghosts.”

He guides me to the water, the treadle, the rims. “Call them, and we will see.”

The tremors intensify. “I can’t, I can’t.”

He presses my fingers to the glass.

We look up. I don’t know if he sees them: Amarante weeping; behind her, row upon row of men with my face. Some are barely whiskered. Others are gaunt, weathered. Rich clothes, workmen’s clothes, exotic clothes, rags. Face upon face, no two the same.

A new death for each man. But only one Amarante.

All of them, all of them, listening.

The door slams open behind us, and I hear the unmistakable sound of a pistol cocking.

We turn, the doctor and I. The moment holds the slowness of movement underwater.

Sophie holds the gun at arm’s length as if she is afraid of it. It wavers in her two-handed grip. Her face is blotched, her eyes puffed. She steps forward and trains the barrel on me.

Mesmer raises both hands. “My dear, you are overwrought. Please, sit down.”

“You made me look a fool,” she says. “I gave you Vienna.”

I look into her haunted eyes. Madness. Ah, yes. The instrument causes madness. I see my death reflected a thousand times.

The bullet buries itself in my heart.

Like starlight on waves, the softest melody slides into my awareness. I rise and push through a throng of men with my face. I am bodiless. We are bodiless. The room holds the dim light of a study, but the air clings to my skin with the reek of an abattoir.

Hair rises along my scalp. So many deaths. What have I done? I slip through them as through a minefield. I feel their eyes, but each is naught but a fleeting brush.

My body tingles like a phantom limb. Even in death, I hear the haunting armonica music. I whisper a prayer in my mother’s dialect and push through the shades of men I have killed to whatever lies at center.

I stop in confusion. An armonica.

A living man hunches over it. Matted hair and beard obscure his face. Water glasses filled to varying levels crowd every surface; dusty bottles of wine spill over drifts of sheet music; candles in waterfalls of wax flicker around the instrument and the unshaved man, all of them burned nearly out.

He sees me, the man who plays. Desolation waits in his eyes.

A strange, creeping recognition closes over me. I am he. He and I are shadows of the same life, variations on a theme. All around us are other shadows, other variations, choices we did not make. We all hear the music.

I do not understand, and then his song turns to the bittersweet melody that floated on the wind. Here is the composer. Here is the source of the music that drew me, must have drawn all of us, to the instrument.

Across the room, I see the man with powder-burned lips listening with closed eyes. Was it the composer’s music that put the gun to his lips, or was it mine? How many of us play? How many of us loosed our songs upon the world and tranced each other into madness?

No, not all. Not all went mad. Some of us called ghosts.

The melody changes. Sorrow so fresh and sharp I can scarcely bear it breaks across some of the other faces. I realize then that all of the others stare, not at the composer but at something behind the instrument.

Emptiness stares back from the composer’s eyes.

A thought electrifies me. If we are here, where is Amarante?

I come slowly to see what lies beyond the composer. The smell of roses wafts over the scent of decay. A white coffin. Inside, a carmine dress and auburn hair caught up with combs of amber. Her face is transported stillness. A ring glimmers on her finger. Beneath her dress, the smallest, saddest swelling.

I feel myself scream, but if my voice makes a sound, it is not in this world. I fall to my knees beside her. She is real, in this world. Her cheek, so fresh—

When had I played? That first night I saw her fall, could that have been…?

The abyss opens inside me.

Through the emptiness of that moment, a thought percolates. The instrument causes death and madness, but I am not the only one who plays.

My eyes turn to the composer.

Bodiless, I cannot feel hate, but envy sinks down where my heart would be. She loved him. He loved her. But I am he, we are all of us one soul. One life, one shattered mirror.

In all possible worlds, I love her.

I press my head to her coffin.

Another man with my face pushes in beside me. His face is shocked confusion. A newcomer. The composer glances at him, and then down at Amarante. Across the composer’s face, I see the hope of a thousand possible worlds shatter into inescapable self-condemnation. Something like a sob tears from his chest, but he never misses a note. He plays as if his heart would stop with the song.

The candles burn down.

Would I have made the choice he made? Knowing, as he must know, that every song takes a life?

What would I risk for one more moment?

I understand the man who reeves every world in search of what he lost.

He plays for Amarante.


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A.B. Treadwell is a nomadic wordsmith who has hailed from Moore, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Fairmont, West Virginia, and that's just in the last two years. Her stories have been published in Flash Fiction Online, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and the Triangulation anthologies. She is also on staff at the Alpha Teen Writing Workshop. Her website is www.abtreadwell.com.

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2 Comments on “Playing for Amarante”

2 Responses to “Playing for Amarante”

  1. amsmith0903 says:

    04-08-2011, 02:33 AM
    amsmith0903

    This was simply one of the best pieces of short fiction I’ve read this year. Skillful language; a vivid, accurate historical setting; a believable and beautiful (and mysterious!) descent into madness. I was spellbound for the duration. I will certainly be watching for more fiction from Miss Treadwell. Thanks!

  2. Diane says:

    “Playing for Amarante” mesmerized me. I had to go watch YouTube videos of armonicas being played–so beautiful! I can’t wait to read the next story you’ve accepted: “Bakemono,” by A.B. Treadwell.

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