Suite for Accompanied Cello

Issue #242

ALLEMANDE

A stately dance in 4/4 time

My earliest memory is of the tick of the clockwork metronome. It sits beside me, pendulum swinging, as my child hands stretch across the enormous keys of the piano, with a perfect fifth, much less an octave, seeming an impossibly wide span—yet I had to jump across it, and in time. All my practice my father insisted I do to the metronome, and so often I hated its relentless click, even as it invaded my brain and my heart aligned with it.

 I was famous for my skill with time, in my solo work, but soloists who feared that their rhythm was not the best were reluctant to engage me as accompanist. This competition for the Prix du Halispell was my first accompaniment job in years, other than with Armand at home, and three days ago I would never have expected that it would be for the daughter of Lorenzo Caramin.

Gabriel, Armand’s apprentice in composition, had been practicing his cello sonata downstairs when the doorbell rang and opened the door for Lorenzo. It had been many years since we could afford an orichalcum automaton to do tasks like that. I was upstairs, simultaneously rocking the baby to sleep, helping little Hannes with his sums schoolwork, and trying to keep Emmy and Tildy from clawing each other’s eyes out over some disagreement with their dolls, as was a daily danger. They were not bad girls; I knew they fought each other because neither got enough of my attention. Even though I had not touched my piano in days.

Every time I had learned I was pregnant, I had wept, wept selfishly for the compositions children would not let me do, for what ability I used to have vanishing. Not letting anyone else see.

“Hannes!” I finally raised my voice. “Fetch the allatir cat from my bedroom. Maybe it will calm down your sisters.” Like all allatir stone, the carved little cat broadcast emotion instilled in it by the carver. I had traded a gold watch, a long-ago prize in some piano competition, to make that emotion be calm serenity. And to keep it in my room, to assuage the endless tensions Armand and I had, over money, over children, over in-laws, over music.

It didn’t always work.

Hannes, as nine-year-olds do, went racing out of the room and nearly collided with Gabriel coming in.

“Rielle? It’s Lorenzo Caramin,” Gabriel’s young face twisted as he said the name, even though he knew the man only from stories. “He wishes to see you.” On seeing that I did not order him to chase the visitor away, he added, “I’ll mind the children.” Thankfully, twenty-two-year-old Gabriel had always been an unconventional man, so he didn’t mind people knowing that he could coddle a baby. Besides, his eyes always looked at me with that look that faithful dogs have, If only I could speak. If only he could speak of the desire he had for me and my body, though he’d never seen it without my gown and corset, not knowing that my belly and breasts were shapeless and streaked after six pregnancies and five births. His imagination conjured something different, that out of respect for Armand and my decisions he channelled into his music and into helping me with the household when he could.

Now why would Lorenzo be asking for me, when he had loathed Armand so publicly before our marriage? Arranged with critics to savage Armand’s concertos in the papers, accused me of immoral conduct with Armand to my father, so that we two had to take my father to court for our marriage to be affirmed as legal? It was good riddance when he had gone to the colonies. Now he was thinner, gray-streaked, serious.

“Rielle,” he began before I knew the appropriate greeting for him, with the sense of a speech he had rehearsed in the cab, “you had no reason to love me fifteen years ago. I have changed. I regret what I have done, and I come to make peace because I need you. Because you have the best sense of time of any pianist I’ve ever heard, and that is what I need for my daughter to win the Prix du Halispell.”

I never knew he had a daughter. I never knew he had a wife, and he had no ring on his finger now. But he had been just the kind to father a natural child on some poor maid, and maybe legitimizing this child meant he had changed.

I thought of Armand, gone to his doctor, and any thought of the doctor meant the doctor’s three-ducat fee, when the thirty ducats coming for Armand’s violin sonata was the only money we would see this month.

“For how much?” I asked, even as I called myself mercenary inside. Well, if you’re a woman who was earning money when she was eleven and who now has four children, a husband, and an apprentice, you can’t help but be mercenary. The ashes of fifteen-year-old hatred had turned merely into a desire for ducats and centimes.

“The standard fee for an accompanist at the Prix du Halispell is one hundred ducats.”  He looked me up and down, perhaps noticing that my gown had been mended and re-dyed many times. “For you, I will pay one hundred and fifty.”

That would be enough to buy my time back. Compose again. I had to act before Armand would come back, would dissuade me, would get mad and tearful. (And he did, when he later learned of it.)

“One hundred and eighty,” I said. “Half in advance today in gold. I need to engage a nurse for the children before I start rehearsing.”

“Done.”

Trying to control the lump in my throat at this desperate hope, I asked where his daughter was. Any parent of an underage musician should have brought her to meet me, to work with my piano, to get to know the person in whose hands her competition and her future rested. He hadn’t brought her.

When I did see her, after the flurry and nurse-hiring of the next few hours, it was at their temporary flat by the Symphony Hall, with a dingy upright that was luckily tuned but whose hammer felt was worn down to the wood, losing all dynamic touch. I am a professional; I do not reveal the faults of the piano to the audience when I play.

Galethia was—underformed. Nothing in her face was definite, not even a resemblance to her father. Cheeks too wan, chin too weak, colourless lips; it was as if she had been carved by a hasty, lazy sculptor who had given up trying after spending all the talent and effort he had on her fine, dextrous hands.

How could a face like that have the musical sensitivity that can only come with experience and years? But then who was I to judge, who had never worried about my lack of worldliness when I got curtain calls at eleven years old.

Her father did all the talking. Only her whispered thank you’s proved to me she wasn’t mute, her voice her cello. She meekly obeyed me when I asked to take the dance suite from the top of the movement. But she faltered at being asked to go from rehearsal letter H, and more importantly—and that chilled my arms once I realized it—she did each run-through in exactly the same way.

It was a very good way, if I had only heard it once. She never played a note not exactly on pitch, and that is a challenge with the cello. Her dynamics always suited the phrase, always growing louder and softer at the same rate. At the exact same rate. She gave me the tempo by playing the first bar, not counting. It was a tempo well-suited to the music. It was always the same tempo.

Even I couldn’t be so consistent. On the piano, much less the cello.

I was grateful I had time to think about all this, because the piano line of her dance suite was not hard at all. A steady quadruple or triple rhythm, outlining basic chords. A child—and not a child such as I had been, I mean, but any piano pupil with several years of study—could do it.

But a child could not do it at exactly the same speed, bar after bar, run after run. And what she was doing on the cello (this was Lorenzo’s style through and through, he didn’t have to tell me that he had written the music for her) meant that the moment the piano either lagged or rushed, the piece would be a dissonant mess within a bar. Her unchanging tempo did not allow her to do what musicians do unconsciously, change their own line, just a little, to match. 

I knew why he needed me. Needed me enough to leave Armand’s anger for me to deal with coldly, mechanically.

Armand had been sweet, wonderful, devoted. Writing song cycles for me. Holding my pregnant belly in our bed, caressing it like the belly of a rosewood lute.

But the noise had come into his head, the constant drone of an A an octave and a half above middle C. Struggling to hear the music in his mind over that A, he was irritable, resentful, snapping at me for forcing him to split his attention between music, mundane matters, and that din. Just like I had to split my attention between music, mundane matters, and my children. But you can’t hire a nurse for the A inside your head.

I loved him, A and all. But I needed the accompanist job, to give myself space from the constant din of my own family. I couldn’t tell him that. So I faced him down, giving him the same answers until he stopped shouting, as implacable as that note.

I was used to men getting angry when they learn women have had their own way, have broken free.

COURANTE

A lively dance in triple metre characterized by the mood of sweet expectation

You can only compete in the Prix du Halispell three times, and never again if you win. I won on my first attempt when I was fourteen; so long ago it seems meaningless. Armand won when he was twenty, the same final when Lorenzo lost on his last attempt, despite bringing a hired claque to applaud and cheer and nearly incite a riot when a different winner was announced. I think that was when Lorenzo’s hatred for Armand started—even as Armand never managed to enjoy the prestige of the prize, as only a week later he slipped on the ice and broke his right little finger in three places. When they took the splint off, it was twisted and ugly like a worm on a fishhook. He could compose, he could play sketches of his compositions, but he could never be a performer again.

But an accompanist is not a competitor.

Once in my presence, a dignified countess, who had never been closer to a piano than the third main-floor row from the stage, affirmed that accompanists were those pianists who lacked the talent for solo concert careers. I was glad when a noted tenor at the same party overheard and gave that countess an upbraiding she would never forget.

 Accompaniment is much, much harder than solo work. A soloist answers to no one but himself; if he takes liberties with the dynamics, or substitutes an easier chord, few would know the difference. An accompanist has to know her art to perfection, in order to subsume it to the art of support. Her dynamics must match the soloist’s, and she must follow him from moment to moment, be the rock of accuracy he trusts, and change in an instant, in the space between sixteenth notes, to ameliorate his errors. I would adjust my time to match a soloist who would slow on difficult passages, or speed up when playing loudly, as so many do. Being true to the musician who is present supersedes being true to the absent composer’s intent. But as with many things about me, musicians and especially men were too intimidated.

Now on the stage, I struck the last chord under Galethia’s cadenza—if so it can be called; a cadenza is traditionally improvised, and she had played hers in the exact same way for the thirty-first time as she had for the previous thirty. She and I rose. An orichalcum automaton designed to handle instruments with the utmost care rolled over to take her cello. We quietly headed over to the row of seats where the other candidates were already sitting, waiting for the judges’ announcement.

I remembered being fourteen, sitting in that same row of chairs, the first time. Knowing that I had played well, but already knowing that the cards are stacked against girls if they try to compete with men, that the judges might choose to give me a bad grade simply for my presumption, despite my father’s begging and bargaining and hiring a claque of his own.

They hadn’t. They gave me among the best grades ever recorded in the history of the competition. Life had punished me for being a woman in another way.

A familiar name interrupted my reverie. “Finalist from the violin class... Gabriel Berenger!” I clapped, for him, even as I held  my breath, the competitive spirit still there, even after I’d told myself for years that a mother of four with forty on the horizon has no place for competition.

“And the last finalist, from the cello class... Galethia Caramin!”

A cheer escaped my lips. I had won this round. Even if I was only part of another’s winning.

Her face was still as water. Water in a washbasin about to drain. But when we went offstage into the black velvet folds of curtain to the hurricane of applause, she suddenly hugged me with one arm, her other hand on mine.

The best part of her, her hands. Her hands that were cool and had no pulse.

“Will you...” she said, “wind me up?”

SARABANDE

A slow stately dance in 3/4 time

She took my own hand, limp with astonishment, and guided it to the small of her back, underneath the billowing pale-blue bow adorning her dress, to a cold metal ring, larger and thicker than a wedding ring. The loop of a watch key. Ten times larger but the same kind of key that had wound up my childhood metronome.

We stood, seemingly embracing. My hand strained against the key as it grew tighter, its metal hot from somewhere in her body and feeling like a brand on my palm, but I kept the rhythm. She shuddered with tension at each turn of the spring. The key seemed to pass three ratchets each time, whirring out a triplet rhythm, one two three, one-two-three, onetwothree...

“Thank you,” she said finally, the exact same words I’d heard her say twenty times in the exact same way.

 I did not let her go. Her—it—this machine for making music, this clockwork chronometer of perfect tempo.

“Lorenzo made you,” I whispered, unsure if it could understand me at all but needing to talk to objects. “Made you to win this Prix du Halispell. Out of orichalcum, like plebeian automata.” But no automaton could think; no automaton could perform more articulately than a tinkling geared music box. “Why?”

“Because. Your. Husband. Won. It,” it whispered. I got the sense between each word that gears wound in its brain, summoning the words. These were not prepared phrases in its repertoire of perfect intonation.

“Do you feel? Do you have...” I struggled for a word that was not soul. So many times had I heard naive music-listeners praise the soul that so-and-so put in their music. What they called soul and expression, I knew to break it down into precise dynamics, well-planned phrasing, accurate and robust tone, excellent control of time. I could reproduce that soul. Lorenzo could reproduce that soul. I wanted no such word. “Do you know what you are doing? Can you control what you are doing? What can you control?”

What could I control?

He had not designed her face for expression, even as I couldn’t help seeing her as `she’ again. Her lips could only smile enough to correctly pronounce an ee sound. Her eyebrows could not move to frown at all. “I want... more,” she said with the grinding of gears. “I don’t want to... be doing what he wants.”

Upstairs I heard a man’s yell of anger, at an automaton or a woman.

“I want to be free.”

We had already taken too long. The audience would not receive its curtain call. “To quit?” I asked, guiding her back to our green room instead.

“To play what I want. Could you make music for me?”

That last sentence came out smoothly, as one she had heard and practiced.

“How do you learn new music? Paper rolls?” I had seen those in cheap bars that could not afford to hire even a bad real pianist, rigging a piano with a machine to read music off a paper rolls and strike the hammers at the right times. I’d never known them to have enough sensitivity in tone and touch to rival a human being.

“No. My body is orichalcum, but inside is allatir stone. Reversed allatir stone. Orichalcum reads intent... Allatir absorbs emotion. I touch a musician while he plays and that way I can... learn. Reproduce.”

“Allatir broadcasts feelings.”

“I... absorb them.”

“Who played this one?” I could already guess the answer.

“Him.” Not ‘Lorenzo.’ Not ‘my father.’ She had been created for one purpose: to let Lorenzo win the Prix du Halispell seventeen years after he was forbidden to compete again. He must have spent all seventeen years learning how to work orichalcum to imbue it with the intent that made the metal execute actions on its own, actions as delicate as handling a bow. Learning to shape allatir, and to do this thing that I had never heard of, reversing it. Composing a dance suite and a concerto for her. All for one purpose. And I knew through her expressionless face that she loathed it.

“He recorded in me a concerto for the finals. I...” The hesitation in her voice was not just searching for a lost word. “...don’t want it.”

“You can play any instrument, then? Can you record from... me?” The old grand piano in our green room was not the greatest I’ve ever played, but it was tuned and responsive. It would do.

“I can try.”

Her cold fingertips touched the back of my neck, just below where greying strands curled away from my upswept pompadour. An involuntary shudder went through me. What should I play?

The dance suite I had written three years ago, before the baby came. I had only played it a few times, and only once to another person. “It’s nice, Rielle,” Armand had said, with no great enthusiasm, and I had realized that he was right. It was a light ditty, no more, a pretty sound for the ear that disappeared from the soul a breath after the final chord. I had no composing talent. It had been silly, when as an adolescent I had played my compositions to adoring crowds, to think that they valued me as anything more than a performing dog: It’s not that this girl does it well, but it’s adorable that she does it at all.

I had nodded and put the manuscript away, forcibly keeping my shoulders straight.

Now, with fingertips of metal and stone resting against the pulse at the base of my brain—I got angry.

My rendition now, half-remembered, half-improvised and reconstructed, differed from the one scribbled down in my diary at home. I instinctively tightened up the melody, substituted chords for more colourful ones, added another voice to the counterpoint... I overwrote in my mind the first version that Armand heard. I made it mine again.

“Oh,” she said when I gave the final chord of the gigue movement. “Oh, how beautiful!”

She sat down, touching the piano for what was perhaps the first time in her mechanical life, and played it.

I can only compare how I felt the first time someone else played my music yet played it exactly how I did—to when the midwife handed me each of my children. Overwhelming joy, and wonderment that I had created this thing, that a few minutes ago had not existed.

“But I have to play cello for the competition.” She looked at the instrument, and I am not sure if I’d imagined hatred in her voice for that as well.

I of course could not play cello. I can’t say I’ve ever even held a bow. I know what notes the strings tune to, and that bowed instruments are unforgiving of even mediocre skill, that it takes years to learn to shape the caterwaul of rosined horsehair into a tolerable sound, and you spend the rest of your life trying to better it.

I could not learn to play cello to her standard by tomorrow.

I knew who could.

MINUET AND TRIO

“So you’re asking me to play the cello for her? For my rival for the prize?” Gabriel asked.

“You are competing on the violin,” I reminded him bluntly. “I wrote the piece for her.”

“Why?”

“Because I felt sorry for her.” Because she is trapped with a domineering father, just like I was. “Because she has never had the chance to find her own voice.”

“So she gets mine instead of Lorenzo’s?”

“No. She gets her own.” But I was not sure how. How do I give freedom to a creature created to be bound? How do I give a voice to one made without her own tongue?

I was determined to. I had just gained my freedom, for a while at least, through being able to hire a nursemaid. And all the creativity that had simmered in my hands for years while all that came out of me was mother’s milk—it thundered out like a suspended gong being struck at last, and I wrote the cello line to that dance suite breathlessly, in an hour. It would be splendid. It worked. It would be hers.

Except that it would be Gabriel’s and mine. And she would just trade a selfish master for a kind one. Was that the best I could give her, when I myself was only trading service to a domineering father for service to a beloved but ailing husband and beloved but demanding children.

The metronome stood on top of the greenroom piano, engraved with the sigil of the Symphony Hall, shiny new steel housed in rosewood. What would a metronome of orichalcum and allatir be like? Mine had been in a simple casing of oakwood, but it had served its purpose in training me daily for fourteen years—until a tooth in its gears must have snapped off, and every fourth beat became faster than the other three, as the connecting gear would rush through the gap.

“Galethia,” I said to her, “how much control do you have over time?”

“What... do you mean?” She always paused before she said something she had never said before. I had counted my children’s first words, day after day as the new words came, and my heart had never stopped racing in thrill at those achievements, and at her pauses it raced again.

“Do you know what tempo rubato is? It’s when you don’t play precisely with the metronome, or with the accompanist, each note exactly on its fraction of the beat—but sometimes slower and sometimes faster. But not rushing or dragging,” my own words came out in a rush, “changing time to change the music. To make the music yours. The word means stolen time.

“Gabriel,” I turned to him, “play the cello suite, on the beat, with the metronome and my accompaniment, and then perhaps she can change it.” I desperately wanted her to. I willed that she would, even as a thousand examples from my life—Armand’s finger, the A in his head—reminded me that all my wishing and wanting proved nothing. I bit my lip against them.

He plucked the highest string of the cello with his left little finger, rocking the bow in the air with his right. Left and right, left and right, in time. “Rielle,” he said, “why should I?”

“Because you love me,” I said, and decided to tell the truth. “Because you are going to win the prize anyway.” The cello was not his best instrument, the violin was, and there was no way my dance suite could compete with his magnificent concerto; I know when talents exceed my own. “You will win the prize, but she will win her soul.”

Soul is in power upon the hour. Soul is in dominion over time and the right to steal it.

Her face was unformed, but I saw her body strain. Doing the most willful disobedience she had ever done in her life, as she held Gabriel’s shoulder, she was breaking something in herself.

I heard the unmusical gnash as her gears slipped just a little.

GIGUE

Jig; a rapid dance in 6/8 time, with a contrapuntal texture.

The audience was a shimmering sea of hats, necklaces, scarves, cravats, lorgnettes. A wind of bated breaths trapping the music in each of them, waiting to be released by one with greater skill. The piano keys were blinding in the bright lights of the hall, and the abundance of light washed out my fine, close note script on the stand. I could barely see it.

In the green room before we went on-stage, Armand had come to embrace me, quick but warm, his face smiling as I had not seen it in years. The restless hum of the high A must have been quiet today. “Play beautifully,” he had whispered. “I miss your playing.”

My heart wanted to burst out of my corset as I felt so guilty for the resentment and hatred I had felt for his critique stifling me. Today I was going to rebel against his criticism—against a criticism that he had not actually meant, that had been simply the pain of his ears talking. Now my heart ached at the mistake I might be making, and I wondered if I should stop now, and whether it was all worth hurting him still more. 

As he left, behind him came Gabriel, fingers tensely drumming on his violin case. He had never been less than a churning cauldron of nerves before a performance, even as I knew he would go on stage and be fine. Galethia was sitting very still beside her cello. Calm as orichalcum metal, as allatir stone.

He embraced me too, and I could feel his body fighting to maintain the necessary distance, that of a friend and husband’s apprentice.

“Lorenzo will not stand for what we did,” he said softly. “I’ve already heard the rumors. His claque is better this time They will riot in the final as much as they cheered in the first round. He’s tried this before.”

“You were not there when it happened,” I said. “I was. The audience ignored his gang. They were in tears. They knew Armand had played better.” I blinked quickly, remembering how the man I loved had played, at what we hadn’t known was his last performance.

“Armand is human,” Gabriel said.

And a man, I added silently. For a servant machine, and a woman, to pretend to be above her station was an outrage that would override even beautiful music. But I said, willing it to be true, “Good music is music.”

 “You know that it will be me playing,” Gabriel whispered in my ear, glancing to make sure the automaton could not hear. “If she wins, I would win, but nobody would know.”

The familiarity of those words, the familiarity of that thought, made me freeze still as stone in my own skirts. I forced the words past the lump in my throat. “That’s how it feels sometimes to be a woman, Gabriel.”

He let go and took a step back. Then turned around and left without another word. I picked up the sheet music and Galethia rose to join me.

Somewhere in the audience was Lorenzo, still believing that Galethia and I would play his concerto and win, and he could gloat at Armand. Somewhere in the audience was Armand, and I felt a reflex twinge of worry as to where the children were, before remembering that the nurse was taking care of them, that this was the only reason for me taking this job.

Nothing mattered now, not who was in the audience, not who wasn’t. What mattered was my script notes on the paper before me, and Galethia’s bow on her strings, and the keys under my fingers, and my mental metronome and the broken-toothed orichalcum gear in her allatir heart.

And we played.

For the allemande and the courante movements of the suite, there was no other sound in the hall but us. It was as if our music was creating the very air, with nothing having been there before, allowing nothing else in the space after. Stealing all time.

Then came the sarabande—sweeping, stately, three quarter-notes in each bar, shift – glide – glide, one-two-three. It was from the glide to the shift that the cello stole time.

Behind me, I heard a shout, and with the part of me that was not touching the notes, keeping the rhythm, I recognized Lorenzo’s voice, but his voice distorted by emotion on a scale I had only heard once before. Not even when my father had come to Armand’s and my secret wedding too late. No, I had heard it when Armand had learned that our second son had come into the world chalk-white and still, never drawing breath. And when our fifth pregnancy, the one before the baby, had turned to knife-pain through my hips and belly and scarlet, scarlet blood on white towels for ten long days, never knowing whether it had been son or daughter.

Lorenzo lost his child, and the dreams he had for her, in a sobbing, animal cry of rage. This time it was not the hazards of childbirth going wrong. It was me.

One. Two. Three. “Automaton!” I heard Lorenzo, betraying all he had striven for because if he wasn’t to get it, nobody should.

Shift. Glide. Glide. “Mechanical!” came another voice. “Lie!” “Fake!” Then another. Then another. They themselves were in ill-fitting counterpoint to my rhythm in tempo rubato. The claque turned from approval to violence, and this time people listened to them. This time, beautiful music, the finest music I’d ever played, was not enough.

Galethia was not disturbed by the riot going on as any human would be. All she could do was play, my music to Gabriel’s performance, over the thunder of people rising from their seats and the irregular, rhythm-less drumbeat of lorgnettes and umbrellas as the thousand people who had come to watch the Prix du Halispell swarmed the stage.

We managed to finish the minuet movement, but then came the gigue, the jig, its rapid and drumming tempo only enflaming the rage of the audience.

Hundreds of chair seats flipping up made a sound like thunder. Men’s expensive brogues and boots pounded down the steeply raked carpeted aisles towards the stage. Walking sticks struck chair backs and others’ coat tails and flesh as the crowd scrambled over rows.

Galethia was trapped not only by the cello’s weight, pinning her in her chair. Trapped by the recording of the music. Gabriel’s rendition. She could not stop once she had started. She had to play the whole suite out.

Men crawled onto the stage, their tailcoats floating as they staggered toward us, like bat monsters of the night. My belly clenched as if to protect a child inside. I couldn’t leave her. Or my music.

Time, our stolen time, slowed down. I found myself noticing every key I pressed, the microscopic time before it sounded. Even students coming to Halispell’s music schools at eight years old already think in larger patterns, melodies and phrases and harmonic tension and resolution. Yet here I was, noticing how the F went down under my right fourth finger, my ring finger, how the A note tinkled under the little fifth one, noticing the space between sixteenth notes.

The men were almost upon her, her bow still going.

No one had recorded in Galethia a way to fight.

My fingers traced out an A chord, one by one, one, two, three. Then a stolen moment later, her left hand down almost near the end of the fingerboard, she made the cello sing that heartbreaking A two octaves above, eerie and strange at the highest extreme of the cello’s voice, the same A that haunted my husband’s brain and broke his spirit as Lorenzo couldn’t.

Her bow stopped. Even through the pounding and the shouts, I heard the quiver of that note broken away.

Then the men at the front stumbled back, the anger and horror washing off their faces. Like a decrescendo that changes the tone even as it decreases the loudness. One fell to his knees. Another fell on my piano lid, facedown, and his sobs echoed against the resonant spruce soundboard, the piano repeating his cries as the only thing it could do.

Then I felt what it was like to play the cello. What it truly felt like, even as it was channeled through Gabriel’s hands, through his playing, through his inescapable love and longing for me.

He loved me. I loved me. I loved myself.

Galethia was made of orichalcum to take a maker’s intent and put it into action, bearing inside a heart of allatir, the stone that emanated feelings, but reversed so it would absorb and preserve, not broadcast and scatter.

In her one last move of self-defence and bid for freedom to be herself, she had reversed the reversal. Still as stone now, she was no longer playing, but everyone felt like they knew how to play the cello now, if they had the hands. Everyone knew what music —my music—was going to happen next. And since no one had a cello except the automaton in the middle of the stage, men milled about, lost, holding up left hands to imaginary fingerboards as they tapped the graceful runs of the minuet, the dancing swing patterns of the gigue, on empty air to my accompaniment.

I played on, in strict time, like an automaton myself, finishing the gigue and supplying the cello part with my left thumb alone, still maintaining the melody. The tempo rubato melody had been hers. The strict time was mine.

They all played along. Only she did not play.  

Last cadence. Resolution. I was done. As the applause came, distorted and arrhythmic, I went over to the chair where the automaton slumped. I drew the cello from between her knees and put it aside.

I reached to help her up, to take her home, past Armand, past Gabriel, to my music and my surviving children.

I did not know how many more of her gears had snapped. 


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Tamara Vardomskaya is a Canadian writer and a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Besides Beneath Ceaseless Skies, her fiction has also appeared on Tor.com. She recently completed a Ph.D in theoretical linguistics at the University of Chicago.

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“The Three Dancers of Gizari” by Tamara Vardomskaya
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2 Comments on “Suite for Accompanied Cello”

2 Responses to “Suite for Accompanied Cello”

  1. Victoria Silverwolf says:

    An elegant composition. Brava.

  2. LEN EVANS JR says:

    Just incredible… felt like I could hear the music and feel the fight to become more than the sum of her parts!

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