by Joe Frye
Mira sets her fingers to the keys.
She waits. She cannot play while the applause holds.
Shadow swallows the audience as lambent bulbs dim above and bow to the stage’s sovereignty. She is a spotlight’s dream. Red dress aglitter.
The world holds its breath, and she feels goosebumps coat her skin. When she begins, there will be nothing left. Only her, only Rachmaninoff, dancing by the grace of hammered strings. Mira breathes in the stale air. She hears his music call, and knows in the repose of the concert hall, she will find a simple peace.
A small boy fusses in the front row. Asks his father: how much longer? His question cuts through the hush, and a harsh chorus of shushes rise in turn. Mira listens as the boy’s father places a hand on his shoulder, pulls him close, and tells him why. Why should they listen to her music?
“Because,” he says, “when you listen to someone’s music, you hear their heart too.”
Her fingers twitch.
She strikes A-sharp with the force of a hammer. Her fingers race at the demand of a storm roiling in her skull. Pianissimo, she thinks. It should be pianissimo. But she smells the caustic fumes of a manic lightning steeping deep in her nostrils. She feels the words contorting within her, driving the tendons in her hands to push.
You hear their heart too. Mira pounds on the keys. Hear their heart—her notes knell too long, blurring together at the command of the sostenuto pedal. Their heart—
Mira sinks into the grand piano’s ruction. She sees them squirm in the front row. Hears how their murmurs grow empowered by the tumult of her unhinging performance. Suffocating her, like Rachmaninoff’s hands wrapping around her throat.
If they can hear her heart, then they can hear everything. They’ll hear her solitude, they’ll hear her doubts, and they’ll hear her pride.
They’d know that she cursed the pianists who performed before her. That she imagined them walking into oncoming traffic, and dreamt of pale maggots feeding on their dexterous fingers as they rot in shallow graves. They’d remember her mother. A tall figure in a long grey dress. She watches over as little Mira attempts her first rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Her face is a fog. A memory tarnished by time. But Mira still feels the welts on her wrists. She still feels the ruler’s sting upon her with every missed note.
Her eyes well. They know she is a fraud now. She doesn’t love the piano. She finds no comfort in the music. No inspiration. Mira is tied to this strange amalgamation of wood and ivory and steel by the expectations of a ghost.
All she knows are ghosts, and so she plays louder and harder still, as Rachmaninoff's specter screams pianissimo into the hollow of her skull.
"Is she okay?" Someone murmurs.
But Mira knows they can see her now. An enfleshed marionette pulled by spring steel strings, begging herself for the indulgence of a moment. A breath of quiescence which she, the puppeteer, will never permit.