Strange Sweet Song
By Adi Rule
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2014 Adi Rule
All rights reserved.
If you had been there that night, the night it happened, you might not have even noticed. The strings and woodwinds shone fat and glossy in the concert hall's perfect humidity, and the brass instruments sparkled in the gentle light of the chandeliers. The music itself shimmered as well, lighting up dark places people hadn't even known were there.
You might not have noticed the small movement. It fluttered the fading sunlight stretching in through one of the high, arched windows that encircled the room like a crown. You would have been staring at the orchestra, or at the polished floor, or at the blackness inside your closed eyelids, as the music swirled around you. Had you opened your eyes or broken your fuzzy-glass gaze and looked up at the fluttering light, you would have seen the silhouette of the crow. But you wouldn't have heard it, because the crow didn't make a sound.
At least, not at first. It alighted on the ledge of the little window and folded its wings, flexing its toes as though it meant to be there awhile. Some of the windows still held their colorful panels, but the crow had chosen one through which tendrils of ivy had pushed their way, dislodging the glass with a long-forgotten drop and shatter.
The crow seemed comfortable, somehow, and not just because it was a crow adorning a remote Gothic hall surrounded by dark pine trees; not just because St. Augustine's was a natural place for a crow to be. It seemed to be listening, cocking its head and stretching its black neck as far into the room as it could.
At intermission, the grand piano was wheeled onto the stage, black and sleek and curvy. The crow looked at the piano with one eye and then the other and ruffled its wings. As the audience applauded, a middle-aged woman lowered herself onto the bench and placed her hands on the gleaming keys, stretching and bending her fingers. The crow twitched its own knobbly gray feet experimentally.
Then the conductor waved the orchestra to life again — a romantic piano concerto, well-known to the concertgoers, who settled in their seats and breathed.
When the woman at the piano began to play, when the first smooth, icy notes reached the small, broken window in the ceiling, the crow froze. It stared, its dingy feathers raised just a little. It was listening again, but now it listened with its whole body. As the concerto progressed, the crow remained utterly still. It might have been a stone gargoyle, except there was something too bright about its eyes. They were fixed on the woman's hands.
If you had looked, then, into the crow's eyes, if you had been a ghost or a puff of smoke and had floated up to the ceiling to look deeply into those shiny black eyes where the brilliant white keys were reflected, you would have seen a despair bigger than those eyes could hold, bigger than the hall itself.
And you would have heard the faintest hiss — an ugly, crackling hiss, as different from the pure, clear tones of the piano as it could possibly be. You might then have noticed the grubby beak was open very slightly. And you might have realized with a start that the crow was trying to sing.
But perhaps you were there. Perhaps you already know this story.
Sing da navelli stares across the moonlit quadrangle and up the snowy mountain that watches over the campus. A porter unloads baggage from her father's Mercedes. Just inside the doorway to the dormitory, a haggard young man in gray academic robes speaks to one of her father's secretaries. She is finally here, counted among the select few.
Dunhammond Conservatory. European prestige tucked away in New World mountain wilderness, surrounded by its own black forest. A scattering of mismatched buildings huddle in the shadow of St. Augustine's, the famous Gothic church synonymous with musical greatness. Until her first visit, this spring, Sing had seen St. Augustine's only in magazines. Now she is here to sing, in the place that has produced the brightest stars in classical music for a century and a half.
She drifts away from the yellow lights of campus toward the chilly northern woods. Not too far, not too deep, just the shadowy, crackling edge. The mountain snow tingles her nose as she peers into the twisted darkness. Quand il se trouvera dans la forêt sombre ... She finds herself humming an all-too-familiar aria. When he finds himself in the dark forest ...
When she was little, music was her nanny when her parents were gone, which was most of the time. Sure, various starched, soap-smelling women bustled around, but it was music that raised her, folding around her like a blanket — fuzzy or spiky or cold or sweet and warm. It sparked her, calmed her, made her want to get off the velvety floor and look out the window. Sing da Navelli is more music than words, inside.
Chatter from the campus drowns out the song in her mind. People are taking care of her registration, checking in, all those little details she has never had to worry about. Then it will be official. No more mediocre high school ensembles. She will spend the last of her teen years with her peers — those young musicians destined to attend the best universities and build careers like fireworks, explosive and brilliant. She is finally going to sing for real.
How can something so wonderful fill her with dread?
It would be better if Zhin were here. Zhin, Sing's first almost–best friend, who loves the violin almost as much as the soap opera world of classical music. She looked out for Sing at Stone Hill Youth Music Retreat this past summer — can it have been only a few weeks ago? They even got to do the opera together, Osiris and Seth. Sing loved the elaborate set with the big lotus pillars. Zhin loved the battle scene with all the shirtless baritones.
If Zhin were here, she would tell Sing what she can't quite tell herself: You are good enough. You belong at Dunhammond Conservatory. You deserve this.
The voice in Sing's head won't say these things. It says, Not yet. Something is missing. But it offers no insight when she tries, every day at the piano, to perfect her imperfect voice.
She heard some of the other singers through the wall at the spring auditions; they were good. Very good, but not out of her league. Now, across the gravel driveway, Sing hears her father speaking. He wouldn't let her come to DC if he didn't think she could be good enough.
It's just that, in her family, "good enough" means "the best."
Her parents could have named her Aria, or Harmonia, or Tessitura, or a hundred other clever names that would have alluded to her ancestry. But they weren't for her, these names that roll or sparkle or play or simply proclaim, I am normal!
No, it was Sing. A name and a command.
"Sing, must you wander off? It is time to go in." Her father is suddenly there, speaking in that calm, unwavering voice, more used to command than leisure. Instead of his native Italian, he speaks to her in English, her language. Her mother's language. "You must get to bed as soon as possible, but do not sleep too long tomorrow. When is your placement audition?"
It is a quiz. He knows the answer already. "One o'clock." Her voice feels small here, at the edge of this great forest.
"So you must be awake and singing by when?"
"Exactly. Eat a good breakfast. Go over your piece tonight, but don't overdo it. It is there, eh?" He taps her head lightly. "You know it very well. I have heard you sing this vocalise one hundred times, eh?" Sing nods. Her father looks back toward campus. "It is a shame we are so late in arriving. I would like to see Maestro Keppler — I so much enjoyed his interpretation of the Little Night Music last spring. He has not aged one day since I last saw him! And I have not the opportunity to speak with my old friend Martin."
It's just as well he won't get to speak with DC's president. Sing already feels her father tugging on the invisible marionette strings of her budding career. The conservatory's brand-new theater is evidence of his sudden interest in philanthropy toward his alma mater.
"I hope they have chosen a suitable opera for the Autumn Festival." He puts an arm around her shoulders. "Something Baroque, eh, carina? That would be lovely in your voice. I would like to hear it."
Something Baroque, she thinks. Something safe. Something technical and stylized. But in her mind she keeps hearing a different melody, a sweeping, wailing one that was born of this very forest almost one hundred fifty years ago. Quand il se trouvera dans la forêt sombre ...
"This is where Durand wrote Angelique," she whispers, and is surprised to have said it out loud.
Her father's arm stiffens. "Yes, certainly it is. This is a beautiful place to write an opera. Vieni, it is time to go in."
Sing hesitates, gazing into the dark forest, Durand's dark forest. Angelique's dark forest. She is unable to turn away.
After a moment, her father speaks in a heavy, quiet voice and calls her by a name she hasn't heard in years. "Farfallina," he says, "I leave tonight. But please promise me to stay always on the campus. They say this forest is dangerous."
Sing tilts her head. "That sounds almost superstitious of you, Papà."
He smiles. "I am just being your father, my dear."
If he wanted to, Sing's father could conduct Angelique as well as anyone in the world. But Sing couldn't imagine him doing something as impractical as wandering around the very forest that inspired it. Her mother, perhaps. But she didn't attend Dunhammond Conservatory and would never see it now. Who knows if she would have answered the forest's call — or if she would have even heard it.
She shrugs. "I'm not afraid of ghosts."
Her father continues to smile, but his eyes are grave. "That is good to hear."
When the concert was over, the crow remained, motionless, its black eyes fixed on the grand piano. It stared until the last rays of the sun were gone, the last light had been extinguished, and the hall had settled into a profound darkness. When it could no longer see the piano, the crow continued to stare through the broken window at the place where it knew the piano was.
And it might have gone on staring forever, if not for a tiny noise — the softest click of something hard and sharp on the tiled roof. Instinctively, the crow took to the air.
But its right leg was entangled in the dense ivy covering the windowsill. The crow fell back, flapping, but couldn't free itself. Its wing became caught as well, as though the tendrils of ivy were reaching and grasping. Still aware of the strange presence on the roof behind it, the crow turned.
It didn't see the long, dark body, precariously, impossibly perched. It didn't see the lashing tail or the yellowing claws. It saw only the eyes, deep and black violet, hungry and pitiless.
The crow had never seen the Felix before, but it knew to be afraid.
Placement auditions. Sing sits on a long maple bench, gazing at the translucent window across the hall. Despite its gloomy exterior, this part of St. Augustine's is sunny. She squints at the stained glass — bright, blocky music notes and swirling staves.
"You're Sing da Navelli." The voice beside her is a vibrant disturbance in the hushed, gaping hallway.
Sing gives a start. Her mind has been drifting. Despite her father's insistence, she did not get a good night's sleep. She was unable to get Durand's aria out of her head — the forest outside her window seemed to be singing it to her all night long.
The copper-haired boy next to her is one of the few teenagers here who isn't clutching an instrument case. Like her, he carries only a black leather portfolio.
"Am I wrong?" the boy asks. "Your name tag says 'Sing.' Or is that just what you do?"
Sing raises an eyebrow. He is probably making fun of her. "Well, wouldn't your name tag say 'Sing,' too, then?"
She flips open her portfolio and studies the introduction to her placement song. Two measures of four, then one of three, come in on the eighth-note pickup. She can't mess up the beginning. This audition will establish her place in the soprano hierarchy — and there is room at the top for only one.
Sing looks up. "What?"
"Just kidding." The boy points to his name tag: "Ryan," blue to indicate he's a senior. Even without the color code, Sing can tell who the seniors are. Unlike the first-years — panicky, confused — or the second-years — overconfident — the seniors are relaxed. They have done this audition several times already.
Ryan grins, and Sing accidentally grins back. She forgets the eighth-note pickup, and for the slightest of moments she thinks he is good-looking.
Then she notices his eyes searching her face for a response. His good-looking-ness is calculated.
Her chest deflates. He must know who she is. As if her parents' shiny fame leaches out of her pores. She gives him a quick, close-lipped smile and goes back to her music. Remember to breathe before the long phrase here.
"You're not too friendly, are you?" he says, as though she's a wild animal he's thinking of capturing and putting in a box.
Sing mutters, "I'm friendly with my friends." Friends? Could he tell that was a lie? That she doesn't have any friends? She stares at her music but doesn't really see the notes. And she can tell Ryan is still grinning.
"Well, I hope we'll be friends," he says. "I'll take friendly over snippy any day."
She looks up.
She opens her mouth but doesn't say anything. He laughs as though he knows what she's thinking — which can't be true, because even she doesn't know what she's thinking — and says, "Hey, we'll get a coffee later. In the village."
He's so cocky. Sing looks at him, trying to come up with a snippy response. His mischievous gaze is still on her, eyes steady and challenging, smile relaxed ... shiny hair ... white teeth ... He really is good-looking. Sing feels herself turn pink and lifts her portfolio to study it more closely, hiding her face.
"I just flew in this morning," Ryan says, as if they are having a conversation. "Haven't even unpacked — had to throw on this stylish uniform and come straight over for placements. What song are you doing?"
From behind her portfolio, Sing says, "I'm not doing a song. I'm doing a twelve-tone vocalise by Janice Bailey."
Did that sound snippy?
"I love Janice Bailey!" Ryan says. "That crazy stuff from the seventies? Rustling paper and shattering glass?"
Sing lowers her portfolio. "I like her new stuff better. More lyrical, more tonal."
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Ryan nods. "She's got less to prove now that she's famous. Maybe she's just enjoying herself."
Sing likes boys who can talk about music.
She scans the corridor, wondering if anyone else is deep in conversation about composers whose only fans are other musicians. But the hallway is subdued. A line of matching slate-blue wool skirts and sweater vests. Knees. Gray trousers and blue neckties. Heads bent over portfolios, mouths sucking on reeds, bows quietly being adjusted or rosined. The atmosphere is thick with musicians trying not to make any music.
"Well, Miss Twelve-Tone Vocalise" — Ryan leans back against the wall — "you must be disappointed we're doing boring old Angelique this semester."
Sing's throat freezes. Angelique?
Ryan frowns. "You okay?"
"Yes, I — I just didn't ... It's my favorite opera."
"Lucky you!" he says. "Maybe you'll get a big part!"
An image Sing has tried so long to repress surfaces again — herself, imagined in the title role. Angelique. The role she has wanted to sing since she was five.
"I'd want to be Prince Elbert." Ryan hums a bit of a melody.
Sing's chest tightens. Prince Elbert, the one who marries Angelique at the end of Act III? The one with whom Angelique sings a passionate love duet?
Ryan strikes a princely pose and begins to sing. "Tout ce que je vois, tout ce que je veux ..."
"Sure." Sing relaxes. She doesn't know which is more awful — his singing or his French. There is no way he will be cast as Prince Elbert.
But he continues. "Tout est à moi sauf vous!" Sour, silent faces look at him from all along the resonant corridor. He doesn't seem to mind, however, and pompously puffs out his chest, singing even more loudly. "Sauf vous! Sauf voooooous!"
Sing laughs. She can't help it. Everything is so serious here; music is serious. If the conservatory had a motto, that would be it: Be serious. But Ryan doesn't seem to care. He has risen now and is humming the horn part as he marches in place. The scowls along the corridor turn to rodentlike looks of apprehension.
Sing watches Ryan as he sits again, stretching out his legs and putting his arms behind his head. He smells very faintly of cologne. Well, he is definitely different. Her pink starts to return. He catches her looking at him and smiles slyly, as though they have been playing a game and he has won. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Strange Sweet Song by Adi Rule. Copyright © 2014 Adi Rule. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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