Memories upon the Ivories
(Beyond “Chamber Music”)
Midnight Rose 1993
For Vincent, there was no conscious lapse of time on the journey back along the upper-most routes that skirted the Underground’s hidden realm. The worlds of Above and Below slept and time with it as Vincent and Catherine walked the invisible rift in-between. His feet carried out their mission of returning Catherine to her home, but his mind was far away swallowed by renewed grief for the lost prodigy, Rolly, the beloved piano teacher, Amelia, and for himself.
He had hoped and believed so fervently that he could persuade Rolly to rejoin the tunnel family that loved him and return to his home in the Tunnels to heal. How Vincent wished he could deliver the young drug-addict from his despair and the poisons he poured into his body. The gaunt, young man was a shell of the healthy boy he once knew. Vincent could have taken Rolly against his will and locked him Below, but that was not the way of the Tunnels. No one was forced to stay or return.
His noble mission had been for naught, costing Catherine a night of sleep and leaving himself with a heavy spirit. Rolly’s rejection was like a dagger through his heart. Rolly was running out of time, his life only a miserable existence and Vincent could do nothing to save him. Catherine’s words had held little solace. “You did everything you could... But he knows now, that you'll wait for him, that you love him...and Vincent, as long as you do, there's hope.”
Catherine’s quiet presence was soothing. She walked in silence beside him, her delicate hand held in his, a constant reminder of her love. Vincent knew she shared his silent misery, yet her air of optimism and faith filtering through the bond prevented him from becoming entirely engulfed in his own self-pity and the helplessness he felt toward things he could not change.
They parted in silence, the warm and reassuring embrace saying all that needed to be said for tonight. Vincent carried Catherine’s hug back with him, mentally wrapping himself in her blanket of love. He would need it tonight. The very thought of sleep eluded him; there was something to be done that could not wait until morning. There was a promise to keep---a promise to Rolly.
“There is a piano in a chamber deep beneath this city waiting for you to play. It’s yours…come back…play it for us.”
In a large dark chamber set off by itself one level lower then most of the common chambers, such as the Galley, Father’s Library, and many sleeping quarters, stood a lonely grand piano in the eternal gloom. Its blanket of dust had not been disturbed in over eight years, its voice had never been heard in the tunnels.
Vincent lit a cold lantern hanging on its peg by the doorway and carried it with him to the lonely instrument. It was a shame no one had had the heart to play this piano. It had become an unspoken shrine to a beloved music teacher and a lost little black boy with an incredible talent.
The leonine man placed the lantern on the edge of the wing-shaped lid above the closed keyboard. Almost reverently, Vincent used the hem of his ebony cloak to wipe off the accompanying dust-covered bench and the piano lid that protected the ivory and ebony keys. The leather-covered bench sighed as it took on the visitor’s weight. At last, it anticipated, someone will make its massive companion sing again.
Vincent slowly raised the jet-black lid to reveal the instrument’s shiny ivory pearls and black lacquer. He stared at the sight before him like someone meeting an old friend not recognized at first. He felt unworthy to be the one to perch here---a lowly peasant in the presence of a king. He unconsciously flexed his clawed fingers, then posed his large furred hands above the keys, hesitating…
The attractive young piano teacher sat at the old-upright piano in the corner of Father’s Library. Joy was written on her smooth Negro face and in the language of her straight slender body as her fingers danced upon the length of piano keys lively weaving the tune of Beethoven’s Turkish March. A small group of children were trying to dance to it, the girls twirling while some of the boys did awkward Russian deep-knee squats. Across the room, Father was chuckling at the sight around him and commenting to the smiling Mary. Miss Amelia Kendrick threw a twinkling wink at the fascinated golden lion-child peering around the edge of the piano. The wide blue eyes of the unique lad of eleven or twelve spoke of a deep, burning desire to run his own paws across the ivories.
Amelia was the daughter of a Helper and having just completed college with a music degree, offered her services of teaching piano to the tunnel community. A few of the adults and most of the girls were interested in lessons; a couple of the boys also showed an interest if they could withstand the ribbing of their peers. None of the children were more willing then the extraordinary leonine boy by the name of Vincent.
Father had told her of the lad’s love of music and his continuing search to be able to play an instrument compatible with his physical differences. There wasn’t an instrument that the young boy had not tried. The flute was his first love but Vincent did not have the lip for it or for any of the woodwinds and brass. Just running a bow across the strings of a violin grated on the sensitive ear of one with such acute hearing. Vincent was willing to try the piano---anything that would allow him to unlock his musical voice.
The lion-boy’s hands were not at all like those required for a pianist, slender fingers and flexible joints. Vincent’s hands were thick and the joints knotted, not to mention his long, curved claws. His hands worked more like a paw with all the digits moving together, the workings of individual fingers stiff.
Amelia was willing to teach Vincent despite such obstacles because the boy was determined to learn and not easily discouraged. She gave him exercises for his awkward fingers to loosen up the joints and develop greater dexterity and stressed the use of simple warm-up drills and scales.
The leonine lad soaked up all the musical jargon like a sponge; his ability to recall was exceptional. Vincent excelled, quickly learning to sight-read and pick up the correct tempos. His ear for pitch was the best Amelia had ever seen. The young boy’s love of the Classic composers, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and Chopin made him a student after her own heart. The extraordinary youth had found his musical voice.
Vincent’s piano lessons went well for almost three years until he began to falter. He had begun to play the simpler arrangements of the Masters, some requiring rapid runs up and down the keyboard, when his hands came to the limit of their dexterity. His left hand was keeping up fairly well, but his right hand seemed to come to its limit, the fingers stiffer then the others. No matter---Vincent was determined to work even harder.
Then life fell apart around the teenage Vincent. His first brush with desire and the duality of his nature crumbled everything he had worked so hard to achieve. The next few months were spent in a hellish nightmare and several more recovering. As soon as he was well enough, Vincent was back at the upright- piano in Father’s Library relearning and re-practicing the lessons he had already covered.
The dexterity and flexibility of his hands were noticeably hampered, making running scales a maddening task. Still, Vincent did not give up and Miss Kendrick continued to encourage him and praise every small accomplishment. However, even after a year had past, the boy’s scales were labored, the fingers of his right hand remained stubborn and stiff. Unknown to Father or Amelia, and not even realized by Vincent, was that the pronounced change had come as result of the teen's conclusion that he was a divided soul, his left hand was the man’s hand and his right, the paw of the beast. Father and Amelia were not overly concerned by Vincent’s loss of dexterity; the lad had simply come to the limit of his ability and had accepted it. Despite this obstacle, Vincent would not be deterred from his musical voice.
Late one evening after two hours of listening to Vincent practice his drills, scales, practice pieces, and more scales, Father came upon his very miserable teenage son drowning his tears in the cold flow of the Ice Rivulet and soaking his hands in the large collection barrel underneath.
“Vincent! Are you trying to catch your death?” Father scolded wrenching his burly, soaked son away from the trickle of icy waters dripping from a fissure in the tunnel ceiling.
The leonine boy twisted from his Father’s grasp and sagged against the tunnel wall. He did not look at his father but turned his face away concealing his agony in his dripping mane.
“Vincent, what is going on?” Father demanded to know.
“Just cooling off,” came the growled answer that was as cold as the water that soaked him.
Father’s eyes fell upon the wet hands and sweater sleeves that dangled listlessly at Vincent’s sides. The father moved to his son’s side and reached for the closest limp limb. ”What is wrong with your arms?” he asked very concerned. Vincent recoiled away before Father could lay a hand on the quicksilver lad.
“Nothing…I am fine.” Vincent growled and started down the passageway away from his probing father.
“Vincent!” The authority in his father’s voice stopped the obedient son in his tracks. Vincent slumped against the rock face and waited for his father to limp up to him and place a hand on his sodden shoulder.
“Let me see your hands, Vincent.” Father ordered in a gentler tone.
Vincent relented and presented his wet hands to his parent. The knuckles and joints were swollen and he could barely move his fingers.
“When did this happen,” Father asked examining the tender joints.
“While I was practicing,” Vincent admitted through flowing tears, “It happens every time…I keep hoping it will pass…”
The pain in his son’s pale blue eyes told the whole story of the struggle---the war---Vincent battled every time he sat down to play. After practicing only ten minutes, the pain in his knotted joints would begin and slowly progress until it became unbearable.
Vincent’s stubbornness to not give into the pain and stop playing the music he loved made him endure the nightly agony. He had hid this from Father and Miss Kendrick knowing that if they got wind of it, he would be forbidden to play the piano. Every day after lessons and nightly practice, Vincent would soak his hands to reduce the swelling and pain in his joints. This had gone on for three months.
Father promptly put a stop to the two hours of practice and reduced his son’s lessons to every other week. Vincent was allowed to play for the painless ten minutes and Father would examine his hands afterwards. Amelia lost her most promising classical pianist with an extraordinary talent.
At first, ten minutes chafed Vincent badly, but as the years passed, the limited time at the keyboard became a welcome interlude of the day.
When the young Rolly was brought to the Tunnels, Miss Kendrick had a child prodigy on her hands with no knowledge of the basics. Tragedy soon followed, Amelia was laid to rest and a grieving black boy had disappeared. The memories engraved upon the ivory and ebony keys became too painful for Vincent and he ceased to play the piano altogether.
Time had healed the painful wounds for Vincent; seeing Rolly tonight had reopened the bittersweet memories. The memory of the elegant Miss Kendrick and a boy with a special gift had been a silent taboo too long and could no longer remain so. This was Vincent’s promise to Rolly and to his teacher. The voice of the grand piano would be heard again throughout the tunnels and beyond, so that it might reach the heart of a lonely young man lost to himself.
Large clawed fingers were flexed and posed above the keys. Closing his eyes, Vincent recalled from his memory a treasured piece of sheet music and began to softly play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” The melody was hauntingly beautiful, its gentle score like a deep, soothing lullaby in the early morning tunnel quiet. The pianist’s hands did not falter, not a treasured note was lost nor the tempo varied. It was as though invisible hands guided the unpracticed composition; perhaps it was the magic of honor and love the student wished to convey to the spirit of his teacher and to a lost child, or perhaps a soliloquy to his own grief.
Tears were blurring Vincent’s vision and trailing down his sculptured cheeks as the last spine-tingling notes echoed and faded in the gloom beyond the lantern light. The grief relived this night was released and gently carried away on each haunting note and replaced with a quiet peace and renewed hope.
Vincent suddenly felt free to resume playing the music he cherished. He had turned away from his talent as Rolly had and was determined to take his own advice and live his promise. The love of memories, the love of the lost, and the love of a special woman in his life had rekindled the fire of desire to play music again.
When Vincent looked up, he saw a small group of friends gathered in the shadowed doorway of the chamber. Father, Mary, William, Rebecca, and Pascal stood in their robes. From eyes still heavy with interrupted sleep came tears, tears of bittersweet memories. No words were said, for the beloved sonata had said it all.
Vincent was poring over a stack of yellowing sheet music spread out on the large octagon table in Father’s Library. One of the children had spilled the handwritten copy of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony onto the floor while pulling down the stack of worn-out piano books lying on top of the upright piano. The loose stack of brittle paper had no page numbers and Vincent was visually trying to put it back in the proper sequence of pages. As Vincent concentrated on the task, Father noticed his son was flexing his hands, manipulating each clawed finger, one at a time.
It had been three days since Vincent had resumed his piano playing. His father had implored him not to overdo his practicing and put his unique hands under any undo stress. He did not want to find his stubborn son at the Ice Rivulet soaking his swollen joints again.
Vincent now approached his time before the keyboard in a relaxed and mature manner. Although he was not tied to a precious ten minutes because the pain that had plagued him in his youth had not returned, he allowed himself only twenty minutes. Vincent did, however, continually exercise his hands to loosen his fingers and recondition his hands for the rigor of piano drills.
Within a week of the night Vincent had spoken to Rolly, he announced a recital by the former students of Amelia Kendrick.
Everyone was gathered in the newly named, Music Chamber. It had not taken long for a menagerie of chairs, ottomans, benches, crates, and stools to appear in a semi-circle of rows around the magnificent centerpiece. The chamber was flooded with firelight. The elegant jet-black grand piano had been polished to its former splendor. Its wing-shaped lid propped open and twin silver candelabras sat on the flat surface above the keyboard.
Vincent set Catherine beside Father in the front row and was delighted by her response to the grand piano proudly wearing its scars of disassembly and re-assembly by Mouse and his other co-conspirators. Father told her the unbelievable tale of the concert piano mysteriously “not missed” from under the Central Park Concert Platform.
As master of ceremony, Vincent recounted the story of Amelia Kendrick and her student, Rolly, and dedicated the evening to “Memories on the Ivories.” Each of Amelia’s former students shared a favorite memory and presented a selection of music the beloved teacher had taught them. Vincent concluded the evening with a sharing of his promise to the piano teacher and lost boy and vowed that the voice of the grand piano would always be heard in the Tunnels. He then played Amelia’s and Rolly’s favorite composition in a moving tribute to their memory; the haunting “Moonlight Sonata.”