A short-story collection from the acclaimed author of The Great Believers
Named a must-read by the Chicago Tribune, O Magazine, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and The L Magazine
Rebecca Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, have established her as one of the freshest and most imaginative voices in fiction. Now, the award-winning writer, whose stories have appeared in four consecutive editions of The Best American Short Stories, returns with a highly anticipated collection bearing her signature mix of intelligence, wit, and heart.
A reality show producer manipulates two contestants into falling in love, even as her own relationship falls apart. Just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a young boy has a revelation about his father’s past when a renowned Romanian violinist plays a concert in their home. When the prized elephant of a traveling circus keels over dead, the small-town minister tasked with burying its remains comes to question his own faith. In an unnamed country, a composer records the folk songs of two women from a village on the brink of destruction.
These transporting, deeply moving stories—some inspired by her own family history—amply demonstrate Makkai’s extraordinary range as a storyteller, and confirm her as a master of the short story form.
—O, The Oprah Magazine
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Rebecca Makkai’s work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Ploughshares, and has been read on NPR’s Selected Shorts and This American Life. She is the author of two novels: The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an an O, The Oprah Magazine selection; and The Hundred-Year House, wihch won the Chicago Writers Association's Book of the Year Award and was named a Best Book of 2014 by Bookpage, PopSugar, Chicago Reader, and more. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, Makkai lives in Chicago and Vermont.
Read an Excerpt
THE SINGING WOMEN
The composer, with his tape recorder, crossed the barricades at night and crawled through the hills into the land his father had fled. Between the clotheslines, three cottages were still inhabited. Three old women still tended gardens and made soup and dusted—once a month—the trinkets of those killed. Once a month, they made their way through empty houses, empty streets, empty stores, empty churches. Once a month, they spoke the names of the dead.
The composer surprised the three women by speaking their dialect, knowing their words for spoon and daffodil and hat. At first they feared he’d been sent by the dictator as a spy—yet who but the son of a native son would know the story of the leaf child, the rhyme about the wolf maiden?
He lived with them a week and recorded (this had been his purpose) their songs, of which they were the world’s last three singers. A song of lamentation, a song of mourning, a song of protest and despair. They had forgotten the song for weddings.
Back safe across the border, the composer set scores around the songs, made records of string instruments wailing behind the women’s voices. He was fulfilled: He had preserved, before its last breath, their culture.
When the dictator learned of the record, he became enraged. Not over the songs (what was a lamentation, to a dictator?) but over the evidence of life in a village he had been assured was wiped out in its entirety.
One October morning, he sent his men to finish the job.
(But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I? I’ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number.)
THE WORST YOU EVER FEEL
When the nine-fingered violinist finally began playing, Aaron hid high up on the wooden staircase, as far above the party as the ghosts. He was a spider reigning over the web of oriental rug, that burst of red and black and gold, and from his spider limbs stretched invisible fibers, winding light and sticky around the forty guests, around his parents, around Radelescu the violinist. There were thinner strands, too, between people who had a history together of love or hate, and all three ghosts were tied to Radelescu, to his arcing bow. But Aaron held the thickest strings, and when he thought, breathe, all the people breathed.
After dinner, his mother had not nodded him up to his toothpaste and away from the drunken conversations as she had when he was nine, ten, eleven, and Aaron wondered whether she’d forgotten in the wine and noise, or whether this was something new, something he could expect from now on. To be safe he’d changed to pajama pants and a white T-shirt, so he could claim he’d come down for water. He remembered to muss his hair, staticky enough on its own but now a halo of rough brown in the bedroom mirror. Through the balusters, he watched the man and his violin duck in and out of the yellow cone of light that fell from the lamp above the piano. Yesterday morning, Aaron’s mother had brought Radelescu a plate of scrambled eggs with parsley and toast as he sat at the bench, slowly picking out the chords of the accompaniment and marking the score. Tonight, she played the accompaniment for him.
Aaron guessed that by moving in and out of the light, Radelescu was blinding himself to the room, to the eager faces and cradled wineglasses of the greedy listeners. Now, as the old man began to play faster, Aaron felt tired, and he needed the bathroom, but he didn’t want to move himself from the wooden step and away from the music. His throat had been sore all day, glue and needles, but now he was able to forget that. He squinted to see the stump of Radelescu’s chopped-off finger, to see if he held the bow differently than other people, but the arm moved too fast.
Behind Radelescu, leaning against the fireplace, Aaron’s father rolled the cup of his empty wineglass back and forth between his hands, eyes closed. Aaron’s father was the luckiest man in the world. Exhibit A: He’d been rescued from drowning three different times. Exhibit B: The third time was by an American pianist much younger than he was, a woman so beautiful he married her and she became Aaron’s mother. Exhibit C: He left the university, and Iaşi, and Moldavia, and all of Romania on June 20, 1941, nine days before the start of the Iaşi pogrom. Exhibit D: He left because he had won a scholarship to Juilliard and it took a long time to cross the ocean in an ocean liner, especially in the uncertain time of war, and once you’ve gone to Juilliard you have connections, and connections are what matter in life, even more than talent.
Aaron could not hear much difference between this music and that on Radelescu’s last record, the one from 1966 with no cover. The man had aged twenty-four years since then, and this perhaps accounted for the small moments of shakiness, the vibratos that warbled on the far side of control. He was old. The hair stuck out from his head in white, wavy lines. The wrinkles on his face were carved deep, and the ones across his forehead were as wavy as his hair. Radelescu spoke only a little English, and Aaron spoke no Romanian at all, so at dinner the night before, Aaron and his mother had sat quietly while the two men spoke. Occasionally, Aaron’s father would translate something for them, but it was only about the concert preparations or the delicious food. Later, when Radelescu overheard Aaron talking to his mother about the book report due Monday, the old man began to laugh. Aaron’s father translated that he was amused to hear a child speak English so quickly and so fluently. And so all day today, Aaron had tried to speak faster and louder and use longer words. “Pathetic,” he had said at lunch, and “electrocution” and “cylinder.” When Radelescu asked to borrow Aaron’s rosin for his own bow, Aaron had said, “Indubitably.”
In the afternoon, Aaron had gone with the two men to the Jewel-Osco. He assumed they were there to pick up some last things for the party, but then they simply went and stood in the middle of the produce section. They stood a long time by the bins of different apples, pointing at mushrooms and grapefruits and bananas and speaking Romanian. Radelescu was happy, but there was something else on his face, too, and Aaron tried to read it. Devastation, maybe. When a lady passed with her plastic basket, Aaron pretended to investigate the tomato display. Finally they got a cart and began to walk through the aisles, grabbing olive oil, seltzer, five kinds of cheese. They returned to the produce section, where Aaron’s father put five bunches of green onions in the cart and handed Radelescu a bright tangerine. Radelescu said something, laughed—and then, pressing his mouth to the orange skin, kissed the fruit.
Aaron could feel now that the people in the room below were breathing less, as if afraid to propel the old man back to Romania on the wind of their exhalations.
And no, he could not actually see the three ghosts with their violins—the three students who died in 1941—but he knew where they would be and he traced their flight with his eyes, over the crowd, around the light, against the ceiling. Until he was ten, whenever Aaron was sick or bleeding, his father would say the same thing: “May this be the worst pain you ever feel.” By which he meant: “This is nothing. American boys will never receive thin-papered letters by airmail that their mother, father, two sisters, one brother, grandparents, uncles and aunts, thirteen cousins, have all been killed. You do not know suffering.”
But that changed two years ago, when they all went to West Germany before his father’s concert in Bonn. It was the closest Aaron had ever been to Romania, though now that things were suddenly different his father promised a trip before the year was out. As they pulled their luggage through the streets of Bonn, jet-lagged, Aaron had felt a spook, a chill, something that made him want to run, and, half-asleep, almost dreaming, he dropped his backpack to break off around the corner and down an alley until he came to a kind of park. He couldn’t feel his legs. He had run toward the chill, he realized, not away from it. He did not picture dead bodies, he did not see ghosts or hear voices, but he felt something terrible and haunted, the skin-crawl of being alone in a house and pressing your back to the wall so nothing can get behind you. When his father caught him hard by the arm and asked what he was doing, Aaron said, “This is where all the people died.” He didn’t mean it, didn’t believe it, but these words were the only way he could express his strange nausea, the feeling that he was surrounded by graves. His eyes must have looked scared and honest enough, because when they finally found the hotel, his mother asked the old, long-nosed concierge the history of the square. “Yes, yes, there was a synagogue,” he said. “A terrible massacre. This is 1096, almost a thousand years.” And his parents looked at each other, and his father said something in German to the concierge, and his mother’s face became lighter than her hair. Aaron was as shocked as his parents, and he spent the rest of the trip wondering whether this was luck, maybe inherited from his father, or a real vision he just hadn’t known enough to trust fully.
He tried every day now to focus on the things he felt but couldn’t see. It made him even odder to his classmates, he knew, the way he’d sometimes close his eyes in history class, concentrating. He tried to sit in the back row whenever he could. It was people’s sadness, mostly, that he attempted to feel, the ghosts that surrounded them, the place where a finger used to be but no longer was. He imagined pain traveling through the air on radio waves. If he positioned himself in a room and concentrated and listened, he could catch it all.
Since then, his father had not belittled his fevers or broken bones. Aaron knew his father suspected that he was haunted, that he saw ghosts and fires and the evils of the world, past, present, future. He would ask Aaron sometimes what he was thinking, wait for the answer with squeezed eyebrows. He would sit by his bed on nights Aaron couldn’t sleep.
But Aaron was half a liar. When he felt something—for instance, that a woman on the train was sick—he wouldn’t say it aloud until later, when there was no way his parents could ask if she needed help. It was something his mother would probably do, go up to a stranger like that. Most times, he never found out himself whether he was right or wrong. And he didn’t want to know, because if he were wrong even once or twice he’d stop trusting himself. For the same reason, when his father asked him for lottery numbers, he just shook his head. “But think!” his father would say. “With my luck and your psychic powers!” It was the only time he joked about it. When he told the story of Bonn at parties, as he had tonight, it was with reverence. He called Aaron “our little rabbi,” but he wasn’t poking fun.
The six best things about parties were: (1) having so many people to spy on; (2) the job of opening the door for guests and waiting for the curbs to fill with parked cars until yours was the house everyone passed and said, “Oh, they must be having a party tonight!” (3) pastries; (4) the old Romanian men who always brought chocolates, including ones filled with coconut; (5) watching people get drunk and seeing if any ladies tripped in their high heels; and (6) the music.
Radelescu stopped, and people clapped. Aaron decided to pay more attention to the next piece, to follow the music itself rather than what it made him think of. This might be impossible, he knew, to hear only the notes and not daydream or invent pictures. Aaron owed the habit to his first violin teacher, Mrs. Takebe, who insisted that every piece tells a story. As he practiced, he invented quite elaborate ones: One sonata was about a Chinese spy. Another told of a man who had lost his wife in an art gallery and spent the rest of his life looking for her hidden in the paintings.
Aaron knew that no one in the room, least of all himself, could listen without dwelling on Radelescu’s missing finger, on how he’d almost starved to death, on how he’d kept his arms strong in prison. And so a minute in, he gave up focusing on the music alone. Instead he willed himself to feel, more than anyone else in the room, the old man’s memory. This piece will tell the story of his life, he decided, and he tried to understand each note as a separate moment, to hear the thoughts Radelescu himself pulled into them.
Aaron’s father had told him about the university in Iaşi, the oldest in Romania, where the young Radelescu had taught only two semesters before quitting in a rage, setting up his own studio in a decrepit two-story building behind campus. He’d brought many students with him, including Aaron’s father, who secretly left the university grounds for lessons three times a week. Soon a piano teacher joined him, and the place was full of music. Wherever in the thin-walled building you took your violin, you could still hear the piano. And so the two teachers began to specialize in duets, because what else could you do? Aaron imagined that the building smelled old, that mildewed rugs covered the floors, but that the piano was impeccably tuned. His father had always spoken of the two teachers in one breath: Radelescu and Morgenstern and their famous music factory. Morgenstern, he said, had fingers like tree branches and legs like a stick insect’s. When he reached for notes, the piano looked as small as a child’s tin keyboard. Next to Radelescu’s old records on the shelves were several of Morgenstern’s: 1965, 1972, 1980, 1986. Aaron liked flipping through the jackets in chronological order to watch the man’s hair go from brown to gray to white and to see his jowls slowly drop.
The music factory’s star violin student had been Aaron’s father, and on the last day before he set off for America, they’d had a party with a small cake. They must have known there was danger around them. There had been pogroms in other Romanian towns. Aaron imagined a stack of newspapers sitting on the lid of the piano, largely ignored. They might have put the little cake right on top of the papers. They might have said, “Be careful on your journey.” No one would need to say why.
The piece ended—softly—before Aaron could continue the story. No one clapped this time. They sighed and nodded and closed their eyes. Aaron hoped the next piece would be full of noise and minor keys so he could feel how Iaşi had turned on itself, how the Iron Guard had rampaged for nine days through the town, finding every Jew. It was worse than Nazis, because these were people they had trusted. Some of Radelescu’s old students would have been among them. Aaron could not picture the Guard without imagining men in suits of armor, even though his father had corrected this notion long ago.
But the next piece was quiet and tense, and so instead Aaron imagined the inside of the music school, where, when the pogrom began, Radelescu, Morgenstern, and six students barricaded themselves. Four of the students were Jewish. Both teachers were. Around him in the room, Aaron felt the swaying of the forty-two people who were not Radelescu, and he felt them try to imagine his time in the little room. They would be wrong.
Radelescu’s hair would have been wavy still, but black and thick, catching the light of the building’s scattered bulbs. Aaron imagined the musicians would have chosen one single room, the one with the piano, and although the entrances to the building were locked, they would have locked this other, smaller door too, in case the Iron Guard broke through the first barrier. They would have moved the piano up against the door. In here they were safe. Since the building was stone, they might even survive a fire. And since their little school was new and unmarked, almost entirely unknown, perhaps the Guard would not think to batter down the doors and shoot through the windows and douse the porch with gas. Aaron knew from what Radelescu told his father that the eight of them survived on only the small, sour candies Radelescu kept in a bowl on his desk. Aaron did not know whether there was running water. There must have been, because humans do not survive for ten days with no water.
On the seventh day, the only female student, a young Jewish woman whom Aaron’s father had once dated, collapsed from hunger and exhaustion. He used to take her for coffee across the street. He used to study his poetry and history downstairs while he waited for her lesson to finish. She had strong little fingers, perfect for the violin. She would live to stagger out of the building at the end, but she would die the day after from having eaten too much too quickly. Aaron tried to feel her hunger, but his bladder was full and his stomach pressed out into the elastic of his pajamas. He imagined instead being bloated with starvation, but this didn’t fit with his picture of the small, dark woman in a flowered spring dress, lying in the corner among fallen sheaves of music.
They were sick, all of them, unable to stay awake much. If they had indeed moved the piano to block the door, they must have worried they wouldn’t have the strength to move it back when the fires and gunshots ended. At some point, they had to accept that they would die in the room. Those who were married would have written farewell letters to spouses they feared already dead. Aaron tried to feel despair in the music—in the scratch, below the note, of bow against string.
The first to die, though, was Zoltán, a Hungarian student who was not Jewish but who, like the other gentile in the room, had stayed maybe out of loyalty and maybe out of a musician’s fear of violence. Violinists need thin hands; they tend to be small people. As Aaron himself grew larger and broader this year, his fingers had started to overreach the strings and bump together. His teacher talked about switching him to cello. On the eighth day, when terrible smells rose from the streets, thicker and muskier than the burning before, Zoltán vanished into the supply closet for several minutes. When they heard him coughing, they called his name. He emerged, his lips and chin and hands covered in a pale yellow powder. He began to cry, and the tears made lines through the yellow. Radelescu was the first to realize Zoltán had been eating from the cake of cheap, powdery rosin. If they had water, they must have given him some, but during the night he died—whether from the rosin or starvation or fear, they didn’t know. Aaron wondered what they had done with the body. His picture of a room barricaded by a piano gave them no choice but to keep it there or throw it out the window. If he could find a way, he would ask his father.
But that next day, the streets had begun to quiet down. There were no more gunshots. In the afternoon they sent out one of the students, a Jewish boy Aaron’s father hadn’t known—the youngest, sixteen and brave. To do this, they must have moved the piano. Aaron imagined the boy had forged some system of communication to tell the others either to stay put or to run out the door and through the streets to the house of the second gentile student, the star pianist, whose wife, Ilinca, would be waiting, hoping he was alive. They might have had a string, a long string like Theseus used in the labyrinth, which the student dragged out the door by one end. If he tugged once, it meant to stay put. Two tugs meant run. But the boy was gone only four minutes, and then they heard a gunshot.
It was possibly the last gunshot of the pogrom, but they did not know this. They stayed an extra day, a day when the collapsed girl could have found a doctor. They stayed and then using the last of their energy they stumbled through the streets and (Aaron’s father perhaps having left behind some of his famous luck) found Ilinca at home.
As Aaron finished his story, the piece ended. He took this as a sign that he was right about the string and everything else. He had been tuned to the correct frequency. He tried swallowing to test his sore throat, but every swallow made it worse.
The five times Aaron knew for certain he had been right, in chronological order: (1) the synagogue in Bonn; (2) when his aunt was pregnant; (3) his teacher was getting a divorce; (4) the goldfish was going to get sick; and (5) right now.
A young couple he didn’t know had sat down on the second stair from the bottom, and the woman was leaning on the man, her head on his shoulder. People whispered while Radelescu and Aaron’s mother shuffled through some music, and Aaron heard the man say to the woman, “He’ll never fully have it back.”
“Astounding, though,” the woman said.
Aaron hadn’t thought there was much missing at all, besides the finger. Concentrating on the room now, he became sure that what many people were whispering was “No, he’ll never have it back,” and he imagined the three ghosts—the woman, the young boy, the yellow-faced Hungarian—crying silently for the way Radelescu’s hands had changed. The Hungarian ghost shook his head, and invisible rosin snowed over the room.
The ghosts and Aaron’s father alone would know the real difference, and so Aaron watched his father’s face a long time. What he saw there, he was certain, wasn’t disappointment but a host of other, terrible things: guilt, sadness, anger. Primarily guilt, which Aaron guessed was from his leaving, from his luck.
Aaron watched now as his father and Radelescu conferred. Breathe, Aaron commanded the people in the room, and he felt them all exhale.
“Mr. Radelescu has invited our young rabbi to join him,” Aaron’s father announced to the room, and then looked right at him, on the stairs, and so did all the guests. He didn’t know how his father had seen him sitting in the darkness, but now he felt everyone’s gaze surround him, tie him in a knot. He was the fly now in the web, not the spider. He shouldn’t have changed his clothes.
Aaron stayed still a moment, but he knew from his father’s look that he couldn’t remain on the stairs. In his pajamas and bare feet, he walked down, between the parted couple, to join his father at the fireplace. He felt like the boy he’d been at five years old, when he routinely came down before bed to kiss the guests and be admired. He wanted to glare at his father, to express his embarrassment in some public way, but he knew this was the worst night for that and so he pulled himself up and held it in. Radelescu said something in Romanian, and a handful of guests understood and laughed.
“Violin part of the Trout Quintet,” his father whispered. “Just the fourth movement. Mr. Radelescu and your mother will fill in the other parts.” It was what he’d been practicing for two months now, often with his mother covering all the rest on the piano, and so he was relieved. Aaron retrieved his violin from the cabinet and quickly tuned. He guessed his father had planned this trio days ago but kept from telling Aaron so he would not get nervous. He knew how his son thought too much.
As he started to play, Aaron’s throat was parched and throbbing, but he knew he could ignore it. He angled himself so he could watch Radelescu’s right hand. He could see, as he’d seen last night at dinner, the stub extending just beyond the base knuckle of his ring finger, hardly a bigger bump than if the finger had simply been closed in a fist.
Once Aaron relaxed into it, the music beside him made his own playing better, and he found himself taking rubatos where he never had before, the accompaniment holding his notes suspended in the air until he felt the moment to move on. He knew his tone was not perfect, his fingering not exact, but this was what people meant when they talked about playing with passion and feeling. He hoped his father was paying attention.
Most people in the room would not be thinking about those ten days in the music school, but about the twenty years Radelescu had spent in prison, unable to play the violin. Aaron knew they all felt privileged to be here, to witness the great man’s exclusive, private return. He’d been out of prison only the four months since Ceausescu’s fall—and here, in this suburban living room, he tried the steadiness of his hands.
When the Soviets came in 1944 they at least made things safe for the Jews, despite the lines for bread and the men like Ceausescu and the posters telling you to work harder. “They rescued us from Hell to Hades,” Aaron’s father said. He always said “us,” though he’d never been back. At the end of the war Radelescu, recovered from malnutrition, returned to his old university post. The Communists favored him, sponsored his concerts, and then suddenly put him in prison. What he had done to fall from grace Aaron did not quite understand, but then his father knew many people they had put in jail. It was what the Communists did best.
Aaron suddenly stumbled back into the consciousness of his own playing, and wished he hadn’t. His instinct had been carrying him along, but now he had to stop and think where he was, second-guess, catch up, count. He felt everyone’s eyes on him except Radelescu’s; the old man was lost in the music. Radelescu did not close his eyes when he played, but he squeezed his face tight and gazed into the middle distance.
Everyone knew the story of Radelescu’s time in jail, and so there wasn’t much for Aaron to figure out. When they first took him there, they wanted to ensure that he would never play violin again. The guards observed which hand he ate with, and when they were sure it was the right, they took him to a room and chopped off the ring finger of that hand. They had been allowed one finger, and they chose the one that would allow them to take the signet ring otherwise irremovable over the man’s swollen knuckle. They weren’t, any of them, musicians, or they would have known that he used his right hand for bowing, his left for fingering. And they would have understood, furthermore, that losing a pinky would have been more crippling. Or, Aaron realized, maybe they were musicians. Maybe that was the point. All it would take was one sympathetic, music-loving guard to slyly convince the others that this was the finger to pick.
After the bandage came off, Radelescu set about building a silent violin in his jail cell. From the cuffs of his prison uniform he pulled out a great many threads and braided them together to make the strings. He knew the thickness of each by heart. Next, from the wooden base of his bed, he took a thin board. He rubbed down the sides until it was the width of a violin neck, then took a nail from the bed and carved notches for the strings. And then with more wood and more gray linen threads, he made a bow. Every few months, the guards would find the violin hidden in his bed and take it away, but he would make a new one. All the beds were wood, so they could not stop his efforts to wrench instrument after instrument from the bones of the prison. Aaron wondered why they didn’t take it all away and make him sleep on the floor, but perhaps even the Communists had rules of fair treatment. Perhaps they liked the game. With a nail, Radelescu carved onto the back of each model the name of his fellow teacher, the pianist, as if that man were the maker of the instrument: Morgenstern, it said, in place of Stradivari.
It hadn’t occurred to Aaron before now that of course the piano teacher had been Radelescu’s boyfriend. He didn’t receive this as a vision so much as recognize the clues, now that he was old enough to know about these things. This was the reason his father had always spoken of the two men together, as one entity, but in a voice that held some unspeakable tragedy. And it was true that Radelescu was here alone. Either the pianist had died or had left him during the long prison sentence. But Morgenstern’s last album, the one from 1986, showed a healthy older man, his eyes bright and his cheeks rosy. So he had left him. While Radelescu had been carving the pianist’s name, that man had forged some other life that was not made only of prison and memory and loss.
Five times a day, immediately after the guards had passed, Radelescu would take his violin from its hiding place and play one of the pieces he remembered. His prison cell would be silent but for the scraping of string on string.
What Aaron tried to feel, now, was what actual music would sound like to the old man, what that first thick scratch of real violin sounded like after twenty years’ silence. As rough and raw as a dried-out throat.
Again suddenly he was back in the music, picturing the notes on the page, and he heard his part come out all wrong—not wrong just to him, but audibly wrong to everyone in the room. He waited a beat to rejoin on the right note, but found it was like a train he’d missed. Radelescu glanced at him, then seamlessly picked up the melody. He turned so Aaron could see his fingers on the strings. Aaron copied him until he got back the stream of things himself, and Radelescu returned to floating between the structural notes and motifs of the other three string parts.
Looking out at the gathered faces, Aaron saw that they were all smiling indulgently, that it was no consequence to them whether he flubbed his part or not. He realized they did not see him and Radelescu as two musicians, but saw Aaron as youth personified, a living example of what the old man had lost. They were thinking, He has his whole life ahead of him. They were thinking, Oh, how he must be inspired now to work for the things Radelescu lost. They were thinking, Lucky American boy, he does not know suffering.
Aaron kept playing, but not as well as before. He took no risks with the tempo now, but tried to stay steady and count.
His father had moved out to the front of the crowd, and it was easy for Aaron to read his mind: He was giving a gift. Maybe this was all a gift to Aaron, something he felt his son would understand more as he grew older and treasure as a memory—or maybe it was a gift for Radelescu, a younger version of himself returned to the master teacher. Aaron saw in his bright eyes and the clench of his jaw how his father was willing together the old and the new. The ghosts flew over his head like kites.
Aaron could not stand his father’s face like that, and he looked away, but not in time. Nausea flooded him, stronger than that day in Bonn, and the flow of the music was utterly lost. He shook, and the bow flailed loose in his hand.
In an instant he realized two things, and the first of them, most starkly, most obviously, was the core of the guilt in his father’s face: that his father was not simply lucky, but had looked to leave Romania, had left early for Juilliard on purpose, had left behind his family and girlfriend, his teacher—not in order to study, but in order to save himself. And what was wrong with that? What was wrong with getting out? It was the same thing Morgenstern must have done, moving his piano across town, never walking by the jail, and even Radelescu had saved himself in that little building, from the gunshots that killed the women, from the trains that drove the men back and forth across the country until they all died from heat. Except escaping is its own special brand of pain, and tied to you always are the strings of the souls who didn’t save themselves.
But the second and more devastating thing was this: These were not divine revelations available only to Aaron. They were common sense, floating for anyone to see, more tangible and opaque than any ghost. He’d missed them simply because he lived here in America and now in the present—and the air was filled with things he would keep missing forever unless they happened to hit him, sudden and accidental as an errant knife.
It was when Radelescu stopped playing and turned with concerned eyes that Aaron began to cry like a much younger child. He was tired like he’d never been, and the wet chill of a fever washed unmistakably over him, and the room was a storm-tossed boat. When he sank to the ground he felt hot urine on his leg and ankle. He still gripped the violin in his left hand and the bow in his right, remembering somehow not to let them drop.
His father was above him, touching his hair and forehead, first saying, “No matter, no matter,” then whispering words like an incantation: “May this be the worst you ever feel.”
Behind him, among the drunken guests, the ones who’d heard the story of Bonn at dinner, who’d seen the quiet, pale boy grow paler and fall, rose a murmur: He has had a vision, they were saying. The young rabbi has had a vision.
THE NOVEMBER STORY
Markus is a gifted crier. We just say, “Tell us how your grandfather would feel,” and he gushes like Miss America. “My grandfather would be so proud of me,” he says, and blows a kiss to the sky.
Or we ask if he feels that his whole life has been a struggle. He says, “I just feel like my whole life has been just this huge struggle,” and then he starts snorting and choking and holds up a finger.
The producers love the criers, and they love the cocky bastards, and they love the snarky gay men. The others, we try to get drunk. If there are any straight guys, we flirt. (Ines flips her hair. I undo one more button on my blouse.) If necessary, we feed them lines.
Excerpted from "Music for Wartime"
Copyright © 2016 Rebecca Makkai.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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