Sarah prepared the most acoustically-pleasing room on the east corner of the Glass House for the former professional cellist scheduled to arrive later that morning. The room jutted out on the second floor of the east wing, almost as its own entity, a glass limb suspended above sand and sea.
It was no mistake that some areas of the house lent themselves easily to capture cadence and pitch. The architect had also designed a floating musical performance space, a barge to transport a wind symphony for impromptu performances in a natural realm on or close to shore for audiences that would not typically purchase or be able to afford symphony tickets in a traditional concert hall.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the former cellist who could no longer play the instrument that had come to encompass her entire existence. Irena’s long letter that she just read kept revisiting her.
To Sarah and Ethan Fletcher,
I have heard of your House of Forgetting and write to you to explain my story in the hope that you can assist me. I used to be a professional cellist and long to forget the instrument I can no longer play.
I’m not sure who I am anymore.
At night I dream with the voice of the cello.
I fell in love with the instrument the first time I was taken to a professional concert at the local school in our neighborhood where my mother was a cleaning woman. I was six. My mother asked my father to bring me to hear a visiting string quartet. She wanted to make sure I was cultured. I really didn’t know what “cultured” meant, but was instantly drawn to the instrument larger than me. I thought the wooden shape was a sleeping being that awakened through the musician’s hands. The haunting music enraptured me.
From that day, I dreamed of the cello, of bringing such depths of sounds to life with my own hands. Music that resonated with, what I later identified as, emotion.
On my eighth birthday my parents awakened me early in the morning before daylight, leading me to the back porch of our one-bedroom apartment. For there was a surprise that my father wanted me to see before he left for work at the General Motors factory in Tarrytown, New York.
My father led me by the hand to the back porch. I blinked several times to verify that I was, in fact, completely awake and standing in front of a cello. “But Tata, how could you afford—“ Even then I realized that the daughter of a cleaning woman and a factory worker was not destined to own such a lavish musical instrument. And I felt guilty for the sacrifices my parents must have made.
“Tinia” (little one), he answered with a subtle smile that was uncharacteristic of my serious and hard-working father, “your mother found this gift for you. The original owner, an elderly woman from Hungary, asked that her cello be given to a young girl. Old age has crippled her hands that are no longer able to move the bow across the strings. She longs to return the gift one of her neighbors gave her—to someone who dreams of playing the cello in a small apartment in a neighborhood of sirens and other frightening noises.”
When my father, usually taciturn, had something important to say, he prepared and rehearsed, shaping words into lovely sentences. My mother admired this talent of his and looked at him proudly while he spoke. I was the child he worked in the factory for, to give more to me than he had in Poland. He wanted more than anything for me to attend college. And I did. On a full scholarship to the Hartt School of Music—my cello and I.
My immigrant parents had succeeded in handing me a better life than theirs, which made their sacrifices worthwhile to them. I had fulfilled their American Dream though I traveled too much to have a white picket fence or children of my own. Playing the cello was the only fulfillment I needed. I believed I was called upon to play and give back the music of the spheres. My affinity for the cello was something I did not choose but, rather, something I was born with, I believed, a gift that gave great joy and in its sudden absence unfortunately, intense pain.
The night everything changed, I was running late for a performance in Philadelphia with the Philharmonic Orchestra. I had changed my dress last minute, fearing the concert hall would be too hot to wear velvet on that warm autumn night. I rearranged my hair back into a neat chignon and rushed from the hotel room. The elevator was taking a very long time. I pressed the call button repeatedly out of pre-performance nerves. I would be performing a solo piece that I had never played before in public, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor.
Even after years of playing professionally, one becomes edgy, calling up all one’s energy to perform, to play the notes as rehearsed, not to be distracted or lose confidence. I was preoccupied with a certain segment of the concerto, praying that my rendition would do justice to the musical score. The elevator door finally opened and as I stepped, I carefully picked up my cello and lifted my long, silk skirt so that it would not catch on my heels. Before I knew what happened, I was falling at a sickening rate down the elevator shaft—
Blinding, excruciating pain. Complete darkness.
Fading in and out of consciousness, I vaguely remember the ambulance, the blur of faces, the hushed whispering.
I woke up several days later in a body cast and was informed by a young hospital physician that parts of my back were shattered, that I might not walk again, but there was hope, in time, for partial rehabilitation at the very least. There would be numerous surgeries to fuse pieces of my back together with metals and screws.
Barely able to hear my quivering voice, I asked the doctor, “When will I be able to play again?”
He looked away and did not answer, exiting the room courteously to leave me with the realization of what his silence meant—and my subsequent, partially-muffled sobs.
Time. That is all I had. Time lying down staring at the ceiling, time with my eyes closed going through all the notes of Bach’s Cello Suites, living in their phrases, dips, and turns that I would never play again, bring to life for a concert hall filled with mesmerized listeners.
The man I had been seeing for over a year, a professional violist, sent a beautiful flower arrangement of pale pink lilies and lisianthus to the hospital, but that was the last I ever heard from him. The small card read, “Irena, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say. I have to leave for Spain. Please forgive me for not wanting to see you this way. David.” His note somehow didn’t surprise me. I think I was in shock for months and the shock shielded me from the surprise of him leaving me.
As predicted, my back would never heal sufficiently or be strong enough to play the cello. I fantasized about attaching a cinder block to my neck with rope and jumping off the bank of the river where I ice skated as a child, where I experienced happier times. Luckily I could not even stand during the time of these bleakest thoughts. I tried to remember the Cello Concerto in E Minor that I was supposed to perform the night of the accident but could not—though I am sure clusters of notes visit me in sleep.
It has been a difficult two years for me. My parents are no longer alive to help me through this dark time. I pray to them to watch over me and give me their strength. My father and his family survived deportation to Siberia, starvation, disease, and permanent exile. My mother had been the oldest of five and since her parents did not speak English, she was responsible as a young child to act as intermediary with her sisters’ teachers and translate for my grandparents. She was strong-spirited like my father, and I prayed for some of their vitality.
My physician has finally cleared me for travel to your House Where Sorrow is Said to be Forgotten. I am hoping you can help me find a recipient for my original cello, the one given to me by the Hungarian woman (the cello I was performing with was a heap of splinters), preferably a child whose parents cannot afford such an extravagance. It still has music to be played through its spruce and willow. I also require assistance in discovering another life for myself, another purpose.
Thank you for indulging me in my self-pity from which I know I must emerge if I am to exist in the world again. I look forward to hearing your reply and pray that you will have a vacancy for me.
Ethan was probably reading the former cellist’s letter now. Their energy would be focused on guiding the former cellist to lay down the past, mourn it, and [move forward while teaching herself to fill the chasm with something redemptive. It sounded so simple, yet Sarah knew all too well the difficulty involved with this highly private and elusive task.
The sounds and presence of the sea and sky would help Irena, Sarah affirmed, by providing her with another kind of music and a different sense of time. The shifting dance of light on water, the rhythms of high and low tides, the peaceful atmosphere of acceptance and belief, or merely the motion of things, she knew—could pull the most lifeless back into willful continuance. Sometimes just being with others was helpful, new people, or merely travelling to a place of promised hope.