Trois Gymnopédies

By Steve Gergley

Moments after sitting down at the piano, Melissa remembered her mother. She remembered the blue-steel sheen of thick black hair, the French vanilla scent of vein-lined hands, the dirt-streaked sole of a motionless foot.

Now Melissa pressed her fingers to the keys and started playing Gymnopédie No. 1. In seconds her eyes slipped closed and she was no longer thirty-three, no longer playing an evening concert in the park back home. Suddenly she was seven years old again, laying on the floor of her sun-drenched living room, watching her mother play the piano. Three times Melissa asked if she could help, but her mother neither answered nor turned her head; her face lay hidden behind the smooth black drapery of her hair. After a minute her mother lifted her feet off the ground and the watery music turned dry and rocky. The notes took on an impatient, imploring tone then, as if commanding Melissa to assume her station under the piano bench.

Moments later she was there, crouched on hands and knees, her mother’s warm feet resting gently on her back. From here Melissa listened to the oceanic sway of the music and waited for a good place to jump in; finally hearing her opportunity, she pressed the right-most pedal with the heel of her hand. The icy lick of metal sent a shivery chill through her body. Just then she felt a sharp pain on the back of her head, and her cheek was suddenly mashed into the cold floor. She tasted dust as one of her upper teeth cut into her bottom lip and drew a warm string of blood into her mouth. A instant later, the music stopped and the pressure on the back of her head eased; but before she could clamber out from under the bench and ask what she had done wrong, her mother was already gone, swishing like a ghost down the shadowed hall.

Melissa returned to the park for the beginning of Gymnopédie No. 2. Now she opened her eyes and shifted her gaze to the lush green expanse of the park on her right. Here she saw thick-bodied elderly couples dozing in saggy lawn chairs, clusters of young families kneeling on checkered comforters. Just before her gaze reached the tree line, she saw a thirty-five-year-old woman with stone gray skin sitting alone at the edge of the field. The woman’s silky black hair encircled her face like a hospital-bed privacy curtain. Despite this, Melissa recognized her in an instant. She had been wondering when the woman would appear. But before her emotions could overwhelm her, Melissa looked away and closed her eyes. And here, with her eyes closed and with Gymnopédie No. 2 melting into Gymnopédie No. 3, it did not take long for her mother to pull her into the past once again.

Now she was nine and laying awake in bed after a nightmare. Unable to get back to sleep, Melissa climbed out of bed and padded to the window looking out on the backyard. Peering out into the shadowed world, she saw a needle of light leaking under the door of her father’s storage shed. Then, as she stood at the open window and stared at this light, she heard the faint, glassy plunking of someone playing a piano out there in the dark. In an instant she knew it was her mother and that something was wrong. So she slipped on her shoes and glided soundlessly through the house to the back door.

As Melissa stepped outside, the music was nearly drowned out by the leathery chirping of thousands of bugs; but, listening close, she heard that it was still there, floating above all the noise, all the beating of translucent wings and rubbing of armored legs. From here Melissa eased down the creaking steps of the back deck and cautiously tip-toed through the grass. Mosquitoes needled her neck and her hands and the skin behind her ears. Frizzy blades of grass snuck underneath the cuffs of her pajama pants and tickled her ankles. As she crept up to the shed, there was no doubt anymore: the music was coming from inside.

Her mother was not there. Instead Melissa found a CD player on the workbench, and an empty bottle of bleach on the floor. Everything else looked normal. And once she turned off the blaring music, it was quiet too. All she heard now was an incessant dripping coming from the loft overhead. Despite this tranquility, she still felt scared; so she hugged her thumping chest and started psyching herself up for the trek back to the house. She drew in a deep breath and smelled bleach and animal droppings on the stale air. Moments later she sneezed, and with this violent jerk of her body she caught a glimpse of something limp and heavy dangling over the edge of the loft. Once she understood what she was looking at, she screamed and scrambled outside feeling scared and confused and sad and relieved.

The Gymnopédies were almost finished. Following this Melissa would begin the Gnossiennes and that long period after, the one that began out in the dark that night, the one she is still living, the one that will probably never end because some cycles never complete. But before that, before she played the final ringing chord of Gymnopédie No. 3, she opened her eyes and turned her head. And as she looked across the field to the woman with the shiny black hair, she did something she had not done in many years: she allowed herself to pretend. She pretended she could not see a falling leaf gliding through the woman’s shoulder on its way to the ground. She pretended she could understand the woman’s pain, and her actions. And most of all, she pretended the woman could hear her when she whispered, “I can’t say it yet. Just give me a little more time.”


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