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Long, long ago, when phones were attached to walls, and milk did not have options, there lived a poor Russian girl who had magic fingers. Her family lived in a one-room log cabin tucked in the corner of rolling green field at the edge of a birch grove in an old village where townspeople fed the house fairies and touched the charmed bark of birch trees for protection. The cabin of the magic girl was dark wood with a steep-angled roof and two small windows flanking the central door. Morning glories vined through cracked shutters, and the wood stairs leading to the front door were smoothed by the feet of a hundred years. You could smell the cabin before you entered it, the thick musk of ancient wood.
Inside, the round table in front of the hearth was pocked with old script, indentations from generations of letters. The house held at its core an upright piano, positioned in what the girl thought the best place for acoustics, under the peak of the wood ceiling. Each morning, as the sun crested the hills beyond the valley, her fingers danced along the keys. The notes vibrated the chords, circled the timbre of the instrument’s chamber, then spooled out into the air with a passion the girl didn’t otherwise know. The notes touched lightly off the log walls and tin mugs of the little house, and filled the ears of her mother and her father as they carried water and kneaded bread. She was a conduit to another world.
In church each week, she wove melodies from the organ which twirled up to the gemstone light of stained glass, lacing the air like a tapestry of sun-slanted fields, the melancholy dawn. Oh how the villagers loved her. Each felt a little pierce of the heart when the girl played. It reminded them of the sorrow when their granddad died, or their childhood horse. Other times, the notes bounded and buoyed, made the hearts of the villagers surge with unfettered bliss.
Some wanted to keep this magic child in their midst forever, but others thought she belonged to the world, or at least a decent college. Her mother and father decided for her to move to America to learn from a master. They secured a large grant from a small school and the villagers pooled their money for a plane ticket. The day she was to leave (this, before you had to take off your shoes and walk in socks through body scanners) for many long moments she sat on the piano bench, her packed bag by her side. The piano was more than her friend. Through its keys she could tap into emotion of the ages—all the secrets that had ever been whispered, the pain and passion ever felt.
Actually, I’m making all this up. I have no idea was she thinks. I am the baby she gave up for adoption more than five decades ago. All I know is that she was a Russian pianist. My aunt told me that one night, by accident.
Forgive me while I dream.
At the small but famous school on the southern shore of a Great Lake, the Russian pianist’s new instructor had splays of wrinkles that shaped his eyes and graying hair swooped in tufts over his ears. When he played Rachmaninoff for her, she learned something new about yearning, how it could be contained in a pause. When he put No. 5 on the stand, it was like speaking a dialect few understood, and she tasted the pleasure of sharing what she didn’t before realize was a native tongue. Under his tutelage her mind and music flourished. Music was the one true tongue, the great composers the only gods—Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Cui. Why confine yourself to language when you can communicate more precisely with notes, convey emotion rather than words? All was released to the air when her fingertips touched the ivory. Mysteries were revealed with each piece she learned.
While others had smiled at her music, or closed their eyes as she played, her instructor opened his mouth like he was tasting the sound. Fingers trilled the air like he was conducting an unseen orchestra, or tapped his knee, keeping time like as if his chest held a metronome instead of a heart.
This girl awoke something inside him that had been rocked to sleep by the predictable movements of hours in days in a life. She watered the dormant bud that had once been his passion. Her music was amethyst memories a grandmother carried in a cup made of bone, the gold leaf from ancient paintings, husk from the meadow where he walked barefoot as a boy. The predictable pattern his life had become dissolved in her music and he was again a youth of vim and promise loose in eternity.
Everything he taught her she absorbed with assertion and a quiet nod of the chin. He could almost see his instruction move from her ears down her neck to her heart, where it took residence and shone through her cable knit sweater. Then it swam like tiny silverfish in her blood and flowed out her limbs.
He wanted to possess her. He wanted to fuse his soul with hers, become newly alive with friction and light, speak in tongues only they could share. And so he seduced his young student. She did not agree or object but acquiesced. What did bodies have to do with anything after all? What mattered—the only thing that mattered—were the silverfish swimming through the chambers of her heart and back to the universe where they had spawned.
The affair did not last. Physical sensations were no match for the imagination—not for his hunched and creaking body— and he did not find the same thrill of fusion he experienced when his words traveled through her body and came out the tips of her fingers. Instead, his delight seeped away like snow in the rain. Her music, now merely lovely, hung like dust motes in the air. Plus, he was already married and had his own soft wife at home, baking bread.
It took months for the baby to grow. The other students suspected the maestro was the father, but no one said it out loud. He did not admit or deny it, but ensured she had health care and contacted a Big Name charity and convinced her to put the baby up for adoption.
She grew tired. Her expanding mid-section became a mountain separating her from the keys. She could no longer coax music from her hands, but only run her fingertips along the beetle black lacquer and ivory, sense the ghost of cadence and time.
She grew weepy. She tried to tell the maestro, it is not natural to give the baby away. But again and again he told her, look at all the mothers who have done so because they had to or wanted to. It is the ultimate gesture of love, he claimed. It was a mercy. She could only come down to this point: it is not natural for me. But without notes in the air, she felt grounded like a bruise on fruit.
It happens sometimes in life that you meet a lover who convinces you to turn against your nature. And so the young Russian girl with the magic fingers agreed to give up her baby to the Big Name charity. But in her angst, she left the famous school and the inspired instructor and took a rickety plane home to the Russian countryside. When she reached her house and went inside, the keys on her piano were coated in dust, and stuck when she touched them. As they
yielded, a small silvery fish fluttered, then stilled.
Years went by. There grew a hole in her chest where the child should be. Though she married a nice bricklayer, and he built her a house and stairs leading up to that house, and even though everything the bricklayer touched he made solid, and with him she had three more children, still the hole grew more cavernous with each passing year. She learned to be careful of exposure in bathing suits and sundresses. After a while, she learned how to knit. The thin cold needles were a poor substitute for lush ivory keys, but as she built row after row of knots, an object grew on which she could train her yearning. She knit a shawl to cover the hole.
Her three babies grew. To her, they were dull with regular skills. Which is to say: They were each unique individuals. One could calculate numbers. One studied currents in the world’s oceans and predicted future trends. One could make any dog walk at a heel. But our girl, a woman now, was looking for magic she could recognize. She was looking for hands.
Miles away, an ocean, a continent away, a girl grew up who could not hold things properly. Parents slipped away. Childhood loves. Plates and glasses crashed to the floor.
She knew she was adopted from the time she could talk, when her adoptive parents told her a charming story of how they had picked her out at the baby store. They chose her because of her chubby cheeks and dark eyes—they were a family of blue. As she grew, she realized that some lady gave her away. “Shush shush shush!” her adoptive parents chimed. “We chose you,” they cheered. “Adopted = Chosen Child!”
“But—” she tried to complain. “Some lady gave me away.”
Blood doesn’t matter, they told her on repeat. Love creates a family.
It was hard to pretend she looked like them, with her pecan skin, her chestnut eyes, but they would tell anyone who asked that she was tall like her German father. In this way she learned that truth is a slippery thing. She knew she wasn’t German like they claimed, but that left open a world of possibilities of where, in fact, her blood was from.
For a long time as a child, she enjoyed her bond to nowhere. It left open the canvas of possibilities, the country that could be hers: Czechoslovakia, Romania, Columbia, Greece. In the days before the internet charted every answer, the world beyond the small Western New York town existed only in maps, on the globe that spun with actual touch. Countries of various size arranged by color. The blue swath of sea. But sometimes when alone she would look in the mirror and wonder who was the person with the same dark eyes, a smile like her own? At sixteen, she wrote this birth mother—this stranger, this abandoner—angry poems that persistently rhymed. But she hid them away, so as not to hurt the short German woman who raised her.
As the young woman grew up, she believed in magic. She wished on candles, fountains, the first evening star. Every penny found was a message from the dead. She believed in her birthday, November 21, though the date was recorded by an unnamed person in an undisclosed hospital on a sealed birth record.
One night when she was twenty, the mystery of her blood was solved. She was lounging on the phone with her aunt and she somehow framed a question about her heritage.
Her aunt, not meaning to unintentionally resolve the secret of the girl’s existence, said simply, “You’re Russian. Your mother was a Russian pianist.”
Of course, the girl thought absently. Of course she is an artist.
Though this knowledge thieved away the countries that might be her own, it gave her something else: a person. A Russian pianist. Staring at a map, the galloping expanse of Russia, she didn’t know where to anchor the image. Instead, she fixated on a date: November 21, the day she was told she was born. It was a day of birth for both of them. The one thing they shared.
Years stretched on. The yearning inside the Russian pianist was rocked to sleep by the predictable movements of days in a life. Birds arrived with the melting snow, left with the falling leaves. Snow. Drifting, piling, shoveling, and then the thaw, the mud. The return of milkweed and mild breeze. Her children grew and left home. The milkweed returns, the breeze, the birds. One day she looked in the mirror, the lined and loose face, and realized with a sigh that she was old.
Sometimes on November 21, she looked out over the field behind her house, the light of the birch reflecting in the afternoon sun, and remembered those nine months of gestation. The months when the baby was hers.
During those months, she was young herself, and didn’t yet know the lessons to teach. Still in the midst of her own story, the moral was not entirely clear. So, she repeated tales from her childhood—The Snow Princess, Baba Yaga. She wished she had kept the child, for a bit at least. To rock her from a cradle made of birch, so that the magic of the wood could soak to her bones.
In her imagination, the memory she dreams is hers, she leans over the sleeping baby, and tells her: There is a lie repeated in the world—Time heals all wounds. But no, my darling, no.
Days and weeks and years may callous it over, but some wounds become part of your skin. You’re left with a raised edge, a hardened bubble of flesh. If you brush your fingers over it, you can trace the grief. And sometimes heartbreak doesn’t heal enough to scar. Instead, it scabs lightly, barely covers the wound. You can brush it off by accident, like moss from a stone.
If the woman reflects too long, the hole in her chest ruptures again. So she tightens the scarf around her, tamps down her sorrow, heats a cup of tea. Picks up her needles and yarn.
As the daughter grew, she found her own magic. She could talk to horses and dogs and ghosts. She could pluck words from the air or conjure them from the sea if she sat patiently on a rocky shore, and compose them on a page to paint images in another’s mind.
The young woman grew up, had daughters of her own. The Russian pianist became like the memory of a dream that faded to the thinnest veneer on the background of life, which unfolded with the usual ups, downs, work, love, chores, Brussels sprouts on Thanksgiving, baby’s first teeth, the line at the post office, onions to chop, dishes and clothes and floors and sinks and faces to wash. Her own tired bones.
The daughter’s life had, as do most, seasons of sadness. After her divorce, alone with her children, she had to be careful and cry when they were at school, or while she was in the shower with the water running. She wept for all the cobblestone avenues at sunset she would not see, the clever and poignant off-Broadway shows. (She didn’t yet know she could do these things by herself or with another, learn other minds, travel new worlds. Sometimes when dreams leave, they strip the walls bare, take the curtains with them, leave you with a hollow that used to be a home.)
She realized after a time, that while words could be gathered from the river, they were just as likely to slip down the drain with her tears. She stopped crying and started moving. She found a little house for herself and her children, just big enough to hold a piano. Sometimes she wondered, what did the pianist do when the ache burned, when sleep eluded, when the yearning wouldn’t be named or tamed but just followed you around the house, biting at your heel, pulling at your sleeve?
Of course for some things there are no answers. The birth mother is not all-knowing, even if she were sitting across the table (and possibly she would advise yarn as remedy for hollows.) And why want this extra person, anyway? The daughter already has a mother! A perfectly good one—the short German who taught her how to iron shirts and drive a stick shift and write thank you notes in a timely manner.
Still, the daughter harbored a secret belief that keeping a walnut upright in the living room might magically summons her birth mother.
Sometimes when the Russian sky is weighted with gray and the leafless trees reach their spindly fingers to the clouds, swaying like tired dancers in the breeze, the old woman thinks: Today is the day I will tell my secret, the story of the baby I gave away. Or someday is the day. Maybe someday or tomorrow is the day I will tell.
Now it is the day in age when phones are kept in pockets, and secrets are spilled on social media for anyone to see. Somewhere in Russia in the house at the edge of town, a small light shines over a stove, and an old woman sits alone at a wooden table in a shawl she knit herself. The hole in her chest is nearly gone. It is just a meek hollow, a curve of moon, the tiniest arc of half of a heart. All her efforts have paid off.
Her own life has played out, its heartbreak and joy. But always in the back of her mind was the unspeakable thing, a story only she knows. Her husband, kind as he was to her before he passed, and despite that she loved him, despite that each year she meant to tell him, never knew. There was a time when she thought she would tell her own children—her other children, her new children (even though they themselves are now in middle age) that somewhere in the world in a different country across a vast ocean and time and culture and language, some other person is connected to you. But as the years pass, the years pass. One day she picks up her basket but her gnarled fingers can no longer weave.
The daughter has a theory that the ability to play piano skips a generation, like twins. She sets her own children in front of the instrument from an early age and pays for lessons more expensive than she can afford, trying to foster some magic. But the piano doesn’t take.
The children do have their own magic. They can spit fire into your hair. Or hand-over-hand, they are able to thread out of you every bit of patience, then roll it up tightly, drop it like a ball, and kick it into the next yard.
As they grow, some days they cling to her, whisper their fear. If she tries to tell them how to fix it, they spit fire again. But if she just remains still and braids their hair, she can pass her hope to them through her fingertips. Your heart will break, but you must take the chance. She twines her fingers in their locks. It is the only way to find love. She cannot say the words out loud; they will not listen. They are as she once was, when Madonna was cool, when she waved with lace gloves and blinked doe eyes with lids in purple shadow. Sometimes in the morning before school, her daughters sit at the kitchen table and she twists longing into their hair as she laces it into a braid. Yearn to see the secrets of this old world, she weaves. Search for something you can’t yet name. She tucks in a strand of hope and one of faith. Create your own thing of beauty. And give it back to the world. As she braids down the plait she pulls the strands together tightly with a tug. Resilience. They will need that, too.
There was a day here, she knows; it was a day to know. Days pass. Years pass. Her hand now is bent with jutted knuckles—a hand she can barely recognize, traced with lazuline veins that map translucent skin. If she listens closely, she can almost hear the wind describing musty attics of memory and star-hewn evenings speckled with dawns still hours away while lovers sauntered arm-in-arm, drunk in their own eternity.
The child: yes. There was a child she gave up. But she—something more.
Notes. They belonged to her hands. No, she remembers now—they belonged to the world—her fingers, she was only the conduit. She reaches in front of the window, the blue net of veins against the gray autumn sky. She can still hear the music in the recesses of her mind, like a dream she once had. But if she tries too hard to see the notes in her mind’s eye on fading paper, the tinkle of keys lingering the air, they recede to the frayed edges of the landscape of time.
Light seeps out the bottom of the day. Leaf-stripped trees like shadows sway on the horizon. She watches from the window as another day cedes to night.
Years go by. The daughter practiced and trained until she found she could hold a pen, a child, a chest full of love.
She found that the magic of the piano did not work. It conjured nothing. It serves now only as an extravagant reminder of a dormant wish.
Does one need a birth mother? Does one need to know one’s heritage? The questions from the mirror have been answered—one daughter has the same dark eyes, and the other has a smile like her own.
The daughters want their mother to take a DNA test. She knows it is science that you can spit on a cotton swab, send it in the mail, and later learn your ethnic identity. But it feels like magic.
We’re made of atoms of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen. Water, fats, proteins, carbs. DNA. But really, we’re made up of stories.
Though the piano conjured nothing, the daughter learns that, if you are open to it, magic is everywhere. If she buys clay and leaves it on the kitchen table, it morphs over days and weeks into vases and cups and plates that spread around the house. And sometimes when she’s making dinner, she hears a quiet clear soprano ring from the other room, and if she glances up, she can see the notes shimmer in the air. Over time, a new love emerges from the rabble of char, wraps her in language and dreams, and paints the landscape of love and life on the canvas as well as in the mind.
This is an all-true story of a dream that belongs to me. Sometimes I try and hinge it to reality—I look up the music school in the city where I was born, trying to find old images, a photo I might mistake for myself at twenty. The DNA swab and envelope still sit on top of my piano.
But if I take the test, what becomes of the wood cabin with the upright piano at the edge of the Russian field? Would it fade like the last chords the old woman can no longer play, the hum from the distance that could be music or the rustling of trees?
And what of the Russian pianist? I mean, my birth mother? The translucent hand against the twilight sky, the swooped gray hair of the maestro, the fluttering silverfish… all the words I’ve lined up to try and understand the storyless story of my origin. This story that has become mine in the absence of one. Will an answer—any answer—make my story disappear?
Jennifer Kircher Herman
Jennifer Kircher Herman's fiction is published in numerous literary journals, including Fiction, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, American Literary Review, and The Nebraska Review, where it also won the Fiction Prize. Her non-fiction is published in Ploughshares online, North American Review online, Martha Stewart’s Body + Soul magazine, Edible Finger Lakes, and Poets & Writers, among others. Her photography is published in Another Chicago Magazine. She holds an MFA from Emerson College, and is working on a novel and a collection of essays about art, death, and yearning.