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The Alice Herzgraft Memorial Piano Museum was not the place to stop off during a road trip. There was no cafe and the only clue that it was open was a modest sign suckered to the glass front door. Even in peak hours, classes of pale music students and minivans of pensioners were the only ones drawn to its light.
The piano museum was out of town, on a cliff overlooking a stretch of highway winding enough to make cars hesitant the length of the peninsula. Far below the museum, warm Pacific air streamed into sports cars, wrapped women’s long hair around their throats, and kissed the outstretched hands of children and the sleek faces of dogs. But travellers rarely ventured up the concealed side road that lead to the piano museum; they had music enough of their own.
My life had been difficult. When I got the job playing pianos at the museum the commute from the city was a comfort. I liked being alone with the hum of the motor, cruising the peninsula, slowing as I came up the driveway clogged with trees to be welcomed, at last, by the monolith of museum, reflecting light like a moon wedged between grass and sky. Every day was a homecoming.
I was in sole charge on Sundays and would wander about, flicking light switches and dusting. Though the dusting, as it was supposed to be a daily task, was generally unsatisfying; decimated, dust needs more than a day to gather its tiny reinforcements. After that I’d move, as if drawn to the surface of water, to the pianos. I came to think of them as comatose, buffalos or bulls, waiting only for my touch to awaken them.
The museum was organised chronologically and my job was to play each piano at least once every day. I could choose the order. Sometimes I started my rounds contemporarily and then fell backwards through time, but more often I started with the historical and wound my way forward, moving through history without being touched by it.
With visitors around, each piano had a set piece it was expected to produce, something chosen for it with the weight of historical research, fitting for its range and tone, its own particular soft and loud, loud and soft. Carefully chosen pieces pleased the visitors, who liked to tell what they knew, suggesting alternative notations and superior techniques. But I was inevitably alone with the pianos on Sundays, so I played whatever I liked, and awoke the dreamers with the tunes of my own invention, feeling my way to new harmonies across their keys.
My favourite was the Cristofori. Although it was the oldest, it sang faithfully under my fingers, gifting each note its own little life. Alice Herzgraft herself had designated a place for it nearer to the windows than any other piano. I became expert at detecting the frowning looks of budding young pianists and assuring them that yes, our museum had adhered to all its windows the very best UV filters.
I didn’t mention my theory, that Miss Alice had chosen this spot for a reason. Only sometimes, before approaching the instrument, I would ease open the windows that faced the sea so that as I played the notes blew out, scattering down the cliff and over the twisting back road, colouring the currents of air and sea that rippled into the distance.
I often wondered about Miss Alice. The place still vibrated to her frequency, as if she were there – not in a ghostly way, but perhaps living on in some of the trace elements: caught up in the sea air, in the sunlight that seemed to glow from inside the high plain walls, or in the stone floor that took every note and ran it gleefully through the rooms, a child pulling a kite.
Perhaps the essence of the rich, mysterious Miss Alice pervaded the whole museum, even the dust particles that blinked in and out of existence through strokes of sun and shade, even inside the pianos, those slumbering beasts, each string producing a note of her essence. After all, pianos are hollow for all we know, until the notes rise from them. Buzzing and looping the waves play out, proving after all that their makers had substance, filling the beasts with life as the life itself leaves them, flies out and is free.
As I moved between pianos, it was like starting and ending a new life each time. Only the body had changed, the instrument, the scaffolding. The song being born was made of the same stuff. That’s how I found out what life feels like in different bodies.
It first happened at the museum’s annual fundraiser. It was a honeysuckle night and guests spilled from the museum into the garden all lit with holiday lights and champagne. The wind was a waiter making his way through the trees, offering tasters of the sea before phantoming back down the cliff. I was surrounded by the synthetic philanthropic talk that paid my wages so I stood, backed up against the museum, sipping water and waiting for my next slot at the piano.
It was an ant exploring my fingers. A lovely companion to indifference. The extreme hourglass of its shiny black body corseted in perfectly with the dress code. It crawled over the high gloss, high curve of the cherry-red nail of my first finger then flipped, a cliff-hanger, to the underside.
Could an ant, fattened up a bit, pass for a ladybug? What kind of tool could I use to paint it with my nail polish, a toothpick perhaps, or a single strand of cotton thread? I brought my hand closer to my face and inspected my nail, front and back. The ant had not come out. It had crawled in under my nail and disappeared from sight. It might sound strange but I was sure, in that moment, that the ant was inside me.
At home in bed I stayed alert, later and later, ready for any little dance across my finger that would alert me to the presence of the ant. But there was no jive, no twerk, no mashed potato. What was he doing in there? I tried to picture it. Was he surfing my bloodstream, having nibbled a little inlet somewhere? Or did he know his way around better than that, was he a miniature Gollum grinning in caves, burying his way through my flesh, findings paths between bones and sinew under a sky of skin? The not knowing kept me rooted to my body in a way I’d never been before.
When I woke in the late morning, stumbled to the bathroom and saw in the mirror a large white booger sticking out of my nose, it only took me a second to see that it was actually a plump maggot. I made a grab for it, snatched at it with cherry red nails pointing like pincers, but it got away. I had a good look up there and saw a pulsing tail-end, wriggling leglessly into the dark.
It came to me that it might be quite important for my health that the ant and the maggot got on okay. I suspected the ant would try hoisting the maggot onto its back and hurrying off somewhere to feed some of its fifty billion children. That might plug up something it shouldn’t. Could a heart attack come from a maggot-carrying-ant working its way through a ventricle? Would it clog up a vein like cholesterol?
Over the next days I let my nail polish chip, and spent more and more time thinking through inner machinations, living much more inside my body than outside it. Even then, I still wanted to believe that I could keep the boundary between my body and smaller bodies more or less watertight.
I learnt soon enough that illusions of boundary were pointless. I had no idea the next one had arrived until it was inside. I didn’t even got a look at it. It must have been a moth because it was small enough to get into my ear while I slept and begin beating its wings, a frenzy that filled every cell in my brain, sent me stumbling to thrust my head under the bathroom faucet. Washing it out was hopeless though, its soft-haired wings had already propelled it far beyond the reach of water.
Sunday returned and I drove to the museum with the windows down, my mouth slightly open, an invitation or an anticipation, I couldn’t quite decide.
Eager cicadas declared summer. I threw open all windows and all the doors, except the front door, to which I fixed the ‘closed’ sign. I woke the pianos, coaxing an insect-song from each of them, sending the notes out to mingle with the voices in the grass, and then I left them, and went to explore the cliff top.
I’d only taken a few steps across the grass before three cicadas took flying leaps into my hair, the length of which was piled up, a sloppy sugar bun on top of my head. I scrambled and scratched, pulled out pins and clips, shook my head like a mad dog, but I couldn’t get them loose. Collapsed on the grass, the museum a colourless mass against a blue screen of sky, I surrendered to the fire of the cicadas’ alarms as they dug further and further into my scalp. In fluttering, burying fits they wrestled their way in, their vibrant songs at last quenched as they immersed themselves fully under my skin.
Vibration replaced their music, and I carried with me as night drew in a pulsing fever, an insistent plea – on and on and on and off, on and on and on and off. Wanted things I couldn’t name, felt I’d never settle until the whole world was churning and stomping with the mating dance of summer. So I walked along the cliff edge, chill and barefoot, body flushed, no longer trying to visualise the scurryings under my skin. Like a clock, I might turn out cuckoo, but the inner workings deserved to remain private.
Slumped against the pricking stucco of the museum wall, I didn’t sleep, only floated still while I watched the world dance behind my eyes, acclimatising to the new drums beating inside my body. A dewy half-morning drifted across my view, and along an outstretched arm, a praying mantis wavered toward my inner elbow. I was curious, not malicious, interested rather than destructive as I bent my arm, folding the slices of green mantis into the softness. I knew it before I straightened my arm; no trace was left, the only evidence of the creature’s entranceway were those faint veined creases that had been there all along.
There was nothing I could do now, and I didn’t want to stop the insects coming in. I welcomed them and they took the hint. I never went indoors again. Stayed outside and wasn’t cold, even at night. I slept among dapples and hosted and hosted. Maggots, moths, ants. Flies, beetles, grubs and worms. Snails fancied my tongue as their red carpet entrance and wonderful fat bumblebees furrowed bravely into my bellybutton. Caterpillars, hornets, a candy-striped leafhopper. Dragonflies, mantidflies, fireflies. Ladybugs, shiny cockroaches and aphids, even a violin spider ducked in between my toes. Wasps adored the fold of my upper eyelid and stung their way in until I felt my eyes red as a sunsets.
Inside me, the new colony moved smoothly under a calm sea of skin, played between undulating lengths of veins, tiptoed across the taut surface of cartilage and sprang, energy renewed with each leap, over my spongy brain and spleen and heart. There I was, suspended above life and at once within it, of it, outside it. My eyes rolled back and closed and a deep breath tunnelled from my throat. A single dust mite sculled out on my expiration, leading the way for the colony to break out of the empty instrument, ready to start life, again.