With only a touch, the single ivory key filled the room with its clarity. It was a shame, I thought, how the people in this town had let it wear down like this. Years ago, this grand piano of Mama’s was the finest thing you could have ever hoped to see. It was an antique, brought over from France by her grandfather. Mama spoke fluent French, and even taught me a little.
Now its keys stretched out before me, yellowing and cracked. The black sharps and flats were chipped at the sides, and the open top was filmed in fifteen year’s worth of dust. I hated it. Mama’s pride and joy, the instrument that sang for us evenings with the sound of “Lavender Blue,” withering away in this big house where no one could see it. And I, too, had forgotten about it with time.
Feeling guilty, I sat back, not willing to touch another key. Sliding over a little, I studied the handmade cloth piano seat cover Mama had made, with its flowers and vines and birds. It was missing a few spots, and some thread was traveling off at the ends.
I amost smiled to see the patch of red in the corner. That was my fault. When I was eight, I had begged to help Mama stitch the pretty designs. She was reluctant, but at last gave in to my charms. Within minutes, I had pricked my finger, and a drop of blood stained our work. But Mama did not scold. She only laughed. She always laughed.
Once again, I tried. The music inside me was straining to come out. I lifted my hands to the position—raised them up and curved them slightly, as she taught me—and finally let the notes of Handel’s Suite from The Water Music pour free.
Now this, this was glorious, the kind of piece Mama was encored for. Not because of their unsettling difficulty, but because of the deep-felt emotion she communicated to the audience through them. I can still see her in the music house on opening night, sitting grandly there in a black dress, throwing her head back and playing.
In the silence, I can hear the water pouring from the skies, the water pouring from my eyes, and the water pouring from the antique that made such beautiful sounds. It echoed and crashed up the walls and into the dining room, where Mama entertained her guests. It flowed upstairs, where she sat rocking Rosamunde’s cradle with me, and to my room, where she put me to sleep with stories of dolls and fairies.
As the notes poured forth, it all came back in a flood.
“La bonne nuit, ma fille. Good night.”
“Good night, Mama. Thank you for the story.”
“Dormier bein. Sleep well.”
“Which shoe should I wear? The blue or the gray?”
“Umm… the blue, Mama. It matches your eyes.”
“And yours, my silly girl.”
“Piper, what’s wrong with Daddy? Why won’t he come out?”
“He’s sad about Mama, Lucy. Don’t bother him.”
“But I want to see him!”
“Daddy—I brought you flowers. From Mrs. Gilmore, across the street. She sends us her love… Daddy?”
“She always did like marigolds, now, didn’t she?”
“Yes, Daddy. She did.”
Lucy’s blue eyes, round and large as wet forget-me-nots, stared up at me. She was only six, and didn’t seem to understand what had happened to us. I smoothed back her hair and turned back to the pictures on the mantel.
I didn’t know what to do.
Mama was gone… just like that. Driving home in the rain, skidded, and hit another car on her way home. Maybe she was an angel now, watching me and Lucy holding close together, me trying to be brave for her. I wondered if she remembered the story she told me last night. We didn’t know it would be the very last one she ever told me.
I silently remembered it. It was about a silly doll that never paid attention to anybody or their troubles. She turned her back to every sorrow, refusing to see nothing but pretty, happy things. So a fairy came down to confront her, in clouds of great lightning and thunder. The doll begged for mercy, because fairies were very important and very powerful things.
“You,” she cried in a terrible voice, “You have a cold heart, a heart of stone. How dare you turn a blind eye to all your friend’s troubles?” As punishment, the fairy made the doll cry tears of glass. They hurt awfully, and sometimes didn’t even come out. But, Mama said, in the end the doll was happier, because she helped her friends, no matter how she had to hurt and cry for them.
It was a grand story. I tried to tell it to Lucy once, but I could never get it just right. It was like magic when Mama told it.
I wanted to see her, wipe the blood off her, kiss her. She wore her blue shoes today, I thought, wanting to sob. We played the shoe game before she left this morning. Mama would always come out each morning, wearing two different pairs of shoes. I would get to pick the best one for her to wear, but I would have to give a reason—it matched something or other.
Sometimes I said, “It matches your temper,” or, “It matches the big wart on your toe,” or crazy things like that. I did my best to surprise her, to make her laugh with my daily choice. But this morning, for some reason, I was serious. It matches the color of your eyes, I had told her. What if they didn’t bury Mama with those shoes on? Suppose they put different, ugly ones on her, ones that didn’t match? Would she be mad at me?
Lucy stirred beside me, whimpering something about Daddy. I hushed her helplessly, and tried to distract her with a picture of her and Mama, playing outside with umbrellas.
I couldn’t blame her; I missed Daddy too. He had been in his room all day long. He didn’t even come out for supper, so I made Lucy and me peanut butter sandwiches. It was scary. Once I crept up close to his room, trying to hear what he was doing. But I knew I dared not go inside.
Daddy had always been quiet and serious, but Mama brought out the silly side of him as easily as anything. His face was usually still, but his eyes gave him away, dancing when she was near.
At the hospital this afternoon, I noticed something unusual. His eyes were just as still and hard as the line of his jaw. It frightened me. As soon as we got home, he vanished, refusing to offer even little Lucy a hug.
Again, I, the big sister, didn’t know what to do. Daddy needed help, and we needed him, and most of all, Lucy needed me. That was the pressure. I had to be the grown-up, now, when I needed my parents the most of all.
There was a knocking at the door. I brushed Lucy’s clinging hands away, and went to open it.
It was Mrs. Gilmore, a lady we knew from church. She stood uneasily there in the doorway in a blue dress, her plump hands clutching a handful of marigolds. She patted my head, saying she was sorry and asking for my father.
I thought of him, holed up in his room, angry and refusing to talk to anybody or to even come out for dinner. No, he was in no business to see visitors, no matter how well-meaning.
Her round face beamed at me, assuring me that it was all right. She’d be glad if I just took the flowers in where they could brighten up the house a bit. She hoped it would help.
Marigolds were Mama’s favorite.
Somehow, I knew Daddy needed to see these. I thanked Mrs. Gilmore, said goodbye, and went back inside. Lucy’s eyes got big as I approached his room. I didn’t bother to knock. My heart pounded as I turned the brass knob.
He was sitting on the bed, staring at his wedding ring lying in his palm.
Squeak—my foot hit a floorboard. He jumped and turned quickly, glaring at me from under dark, stormy brows, as if daring me to come any closer.
I held out the flowers like a peace offering, and hurried to explain before he could say anything. My words kept getting all shaky and tangled up, tripping over each other. He sat staring at the broken stems in my hand for a while, the tension in the room getting to thin ice, threatening to collapse. I prayed he wouldn’t yell. Lucy might hear, and then what would I do? Daddy, please.
Slowly the anger slipped out of his face, replaced by a wistful look. His eyes were far away. Maybe he’d even forgotten I was there. He took the handful of bright orange and yellow flowers, musing softly, “She always did like marigolds, now, didn’t she?”
Hot tears stung my eyes. He saw, pulling me close.
Lucy hurried in on her short legs and climbed up on the bed with us. All three of us cried there, but I felt strong with their arms around me.
A Bible verse came to mind, one that Mama had insisted I learn. Now I knew why. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Ours would now. I was sure of it.
Water flowed down the bed…
…and downstairs, mixing with the notes I played fifteen years later.
The song came to an end, and so did the memory. I returned to the present, now a college-age girl, just a guest in her old home.
Closing my eyes, I could stil hear the last ghostly echoes of the water music, floating and bouncing against the walls upstairs, the walls that held all my memories.
Je vous aime, Mama. I love you. And I cried tears of glass.