3LBE #16
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The Same Song Every Midnight

by Vera Searles

 

The woman upstairs played the same song every midnight.

At first the music was a soft breeze across my face, brushing my eyelids like velvet rose petals. But after a while it took on shapes and dimensions unknown to me. The strings and woodwinds were sometimes jumbled so that they were incomprehensible.

Every night I stayed awake until the music started, then lay on my bed waiting for the song to slide through the walls into my room. Chords trilled and cascaded down my window like spangled threads of rain. The music crept beneath my sill, its fingers catching up the dust and spinning it into luminous face-notes. Faster and faster they spun as they hovered over me, their sweet-hot breath rushing along my arms and breasts. Sharp little teeth gave me fiery nips all over, and with a fiendish wail it reached a crescendo and crashed through my windowpane.

I went upstairs and rang the bell. Vashka came to the door, a tall woman wearing a red turban fastened at the front with a scarab pin. Her mouth was crimsoned into the lines above her lips. “Your music broke my window, Vashka,” I told her.

“Ah. It does that sometimes. Come in, Denise.” She held the door wider, the silver bangles on her arm clinking together. “You must have tea.”

I followed her as she went to the samovar to pour two cups. The room had a cluttered scent of cold newspapers and things not quite remembered. Here the music was still alive, but soundless. It was like stepping into the middle of a marionette’s dream. On shelves, tables and bureaus, stood dozens of knickknacks and figurines. Toy soldiers, penguins, gingerbread men and dolls stared at me, smiling with wooden teeth. Everything moved slightly. I watched them drifting from their places, coming closer to me.

A voice from the bedroom called out, “Vashka, the music stopped.”

“I will fix it later, Sergei. We have a guest.” Her gaze trembled across my face and she added, “The skinny one who works in the department store — Denise.” She indicated for me to sit on the sofa and brought our tea.

“You’ll have to pay for my window to be fixed,” I said.

“Of course. You will bring me the bill.” When she offered me sugar, I shook my head no, but she poured two spoons into my cup anyway. “You need it,” she said. Oddly, I didn’ t mind the sweet taste. She drank from her cup, leaving a splotch of red grease, while on a shelf, a small tiger unfurled his lip to reveal a fang.

Vashka’s firm fingers lifted my chin. “Too thin, too pale. You look like a snow fairy.” She reached into a box that resembled a sewing kit and brought out some makeup things. When she came close, I smelled faded lilacs. Her fingers felt sensuous on my skin as she rubbed blush into my cheeks. She smoothed red gloss onto my lips and handed me a mirror.

I don’t know if I looked better, but I felt better. On a bureau, one boot marched in sand, and it tickled my ears. I sipped my tea. The room was quiet except for the chink of our cups in the saucers. “ Apparently your husband likes music,” I said, to fill the empty space.

“He is the music.” It was a strange remark, but then, everything about Vashka was strange. Her turban wobbled. Her chin wattle rippled. I looked around the room to see if a picture of Sergei might be stowed amid the clutter. None of us in the apartment building had ever seen him, and there was a rumor that he had some sort of brain damage from Chernobyl.

The only photograph I noticed was one of a much younger Vashka standing in snow with a fur-hatted man at her side. Could that be Sergei?

Following my gaze, she remarked, “I was beautiful then, only twenty. That is my father, the great inventor, Dimitri. His spirit lives in this room, in everything you see. He is dead many years. I am now eighty-two.”

I made the usual polite protest about her not looking her age, but she waved it off. “It is Sergei who concerns me,” she said. “He was damaged in Chernobyl.” In an abrupt change of subject, she asked, “Why don’t you eat more food? Do you starve yourself on purpose, to become a shadow?”

“I eat enough,” I told her. A madonna lifted her head to stare at my skinny face and I had an urge to get out of that oppressive confusion. I put my cup down. “I really should go.”

Vashka shook her head and put her hand on my arm. “You need more tea. I worry about who will care for Sergei when I am gone. Someone young. Strong.” A wisp of smoke escaped from a toy cannon as she refilled our cups. “I was a dancer,” she said, lifting a ballerina figurine from a shelf. When she turned it over, it played a small fragment of the song I heard every midnight. “He made this for me. Every one. All of them. For me.”

“Sergei made them?”

“No. My father. Dimitri.”

I looked again at the photograph and the man nodded to me.

Replacing the ballerina, Vashka picked up a dragon and pressed the tail. It opened its mouth to show a scaly tongue while a snatch of the familiar music came through its nostrils. “He was a genius,” Vashka said. “ A genius inventor.” She gestured grandly. “They are all music boxes. Have some cakes.”

On the table in front of me stood a plate of pastries I hadn’ t noticed before. I never liked sweets, but I chose one that was covered with icing, and it was delicious. While I ate, a clown twirled his parasol. I was astounded that they were all music boxes. The shelves seemed now more crowded, as though pieces had been added since I arrived.

Vashka touched my hair. “Too long,” she said. “You cannot wind it into a turban. It has to be cut very short.” I wondered how I would look in a turban. I’d never worn one. “You will meet Sergei now,” Vashka said. “Come along.”

She led the way into the darkened bedroom and I saw a form on the bed. Vashka leaned over him. “She is here now, Sergei.”

The smell of sawdust and rusted metal rose around me as something hidden in the shadows moved. A face turned. Eyes looked at me. Teeth smiled at me. Then the head moved slowly to stare up at the ceiling again.

“I don’t want to disturb him,” I whispered to Vashka. She took my hand and we left.

Was the living room even more cluttered? Was that gray elephant there before, or the buddha? The drawers of many antique jewelry boxes lay sprawled open.

“Sit here,” Vashka said as she pulled a stool from beneath a jumble of furniture. When I sat down, she asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?”

I shook my head no. “I was seeing someone till recently, but it’s over.”

“Good. He was not right for you. He was a drifter, no job, a drinker.” She had summed him up perfectly. I assumed there had been rumors in the apartment building.

Vashka held a scissors, and I knew she was going to cut my hair. As she snipped, it slid down my shoulders and fell to the patterned rug. A metal doorstop dog moved its tail. When Vashka finished, she handed me the mirror, and I was pleased. My cheeks were redder, my face fuller, my lips crimsoned, and my hair was cropped in a caplet style. While Vashka swept the scraps, a nautilus spritzed my naked neck.

“Are they really all music boxes?” I asked.

“Of course. Dimitri wrote the music. They must all play their part to make the song.”

I envisioned what that meant — like a symphony. From an old hump-backed trunk in the corner, Vashka pulled an afghan and threw it on the sofa. “You will need that for a cover.”

“Oh, but I should go,” I said, looking at the afghan’s bright, intermingled colors.

“You cannot sleep where there is no window, it will be too cold.”

I hadn’t thought of that. “All right. But I’ll tell the manager to get it fixed tomorrow.”

She nodded and motioned for me to get on the sofa. After I lay down, she covered me and dimmed the lights. “I will play the music now,” she said, and went into the bedroom.

It came over me as something tranquil, almost religious. I had never been more content in my life.

Sometime later, I heard Sergei’s voice from the bedroom. “Denise, the music stopped.”

Everything was still. I switched on a small lamp. The tiger, the dragon, the madonna — all stared at me, silent, waiting. As I got up, I realized I was wearing a turban, and there was a faint smell of faded lilacs. My eyes traveled to the photograph, and I saw that Dimitri was gone from the picture. Vashka had aged to a woman of eighty-two. Her silent look told me what to do.

I went into Sergei’s bedroom. In the dimness, I touched his head, and found the key. While I wound it, his wooden teeth smiled at me.

As soon as the music began, I went to the other room to watch. The toy soldier beat his drum, the nautilus spiraled in the sound of a flute, and the elephant trumpeted. The ballerina stepped from her shelf and took my hand.

I danced to the same song every midnight.

 

 

Vera Searles has published more than four hundred short stories. Her novel Tales of the Witchlings is available in major bookstores and on Amazon.


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ISSUE #16

January 2007

FICTION