My fingertips felt alien against my eyes, especially at the corners just where the lashes meet the skin. It was hot, and the sheets were sweaty. I’d slept in the workshop again, on this narrow wooden box by the window. The air reeked of bone and hide glue, there was sawdust on the floor. And I didn’t dare opening my eyes to the summer light.
“Are you up? Hello?” There was a banging on the cloudy panes. A face tried peering in, but it was impossible to see through the little window. “Still asleep?” She banged her cane against the window frame again, fiercer this time, and then gave up. It was only after I heard her hobble back to the house that I opened my eyes.
I’d come to this hill last October after I heard M. was here. We’d spent years together growing up in the bylanes of the old city chasing the sun. Every evening after our violin lessons, we would spend an hour by the canal until it was dark and the fireflies came out. She would always carry a jar of apricot jam and I would bring crackers from my mother’s grocery store. Sometimes I still dream about it: she went to an all-girls school, and she wore her braids high. And I’d be in my school shorts that stopped shy of my perpetually chafed knees. We rode on the buzz of summer dragonflies, and carried ourselves to the stone-cobbled lanes of Asturias. We fed our bittersweet fantasies, and they grew upon us in our youth. We talked about love, song and dance, and all the plagues of the heart that swamped us knee-deep with utmost care.
I rubbed my eyes and looked around my workshop – there were a couple of top plates on my main work desk, a wooden frame held together by clamps on another one. I walked over to the desk and switched the lamps off.
When I walked out into the bright yard, I saw her rocking her chair out in the porch. A warm breeze wafted through the muslin thrown over ripening tomatoes that seemed like scarlet heads sweating in the sun. My eyes took a while to come in the light, and I stood by my door rubbing my dark knuckles into them.
“You sure are a deep sleeper. You’d left the lights on!” She smiled seeing me stumble across to her.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been working until late these days.” She invited me to sip some lemonade with her. I obliged. “What’re you on these days?”
“Oh this?” She raised her knitting and draped it casually over her bust, “A muffler! The cold makes my neck ache”, she summoned a frown as most old people do when they talk about illness. “How’s the lemonade?”
“Perfect”, I smiled.
She looked at me in gentle pity, “You should eat more, look at those bony haunches! Your trousers hang just by the braces! I’ve made you some breakfast.”
“You really mustn’t bother. I’ll eat something on my way back from the class.”
“See, I’m set in my ways”, she dropped her knitting in her lap and stretched her fingers, “I’m still learning to cook just for myself. Until that happens, I say you go in there and get some food now and then.”
It takes me about fifteen minutes of cycling downhill to reach the town. Ever since I’ve moved here, I’ve taken to giving violin classes three days a week. Some of my adult students take my services as a luthier and some commission handmade violins. The trade’s not as swift as in the city, but there isn’t much to spend on anyway. Today it’s an adult class of two – a primary school tone-deaf art teacher, and a housewife who gave up playing in her teens. Sometimes, most often on Fridays and Wednesdays, she invites me over after the class for a fuck.
And we light cigarettes in bed. My hair’s always sweaty and lank after I do her. She says it makes me look intense, but I dismiss it. Sometimes, when she’s sitting cross-legged at the edge of her bed, smoking the cigarettes she steals from her husband’s drawer, I play Ravel for her. “Play me Le Gibet”, she asks in a coarse voice that reeks of nicotine, “I want to hear the bells toll.”
“But why is it all in French!” M. scoffed and wrinkled her nose like a little prune.
“That’s because all great poetry is written in French”, I laughed.
“Why do they make us read Tennyson in school then?”
She was pale the last time I saw her, but she was getting better. I had managed to remind her of some of her memories, I even tried to bring her to play again, but she was too far away. Her incidents had got less frequent, and lately, she had started walking around the house on her own. Nobody could put a finger on what was exactly wrong with her, but her condition kept deteriorating, and she kept getting frail each passing day. She had given up playing about a year after her seizures. Her fingers would sometimes move on an imaginary fingerboard when she was away, but that was it.
We had lost touch after I’d moved away for my college. Sometimes I would hear her name now and then, and how she dated this guy or the other, but nothing ever transpired beyond those auburn evenings by the canal for me. She grew up to be someone I’d never known, and then one day, two years ago, I heard of her first breakdown.
She lives not far away from my workshop, her uncle runs a bookshop on the ground floor of their house. I’d gone to her with a few live recordings, Debussy, Mozart – her usual favourites, and we spent the June afternoon dressed in clean linen slacks and robes, listening to the scratchy vinyl after each applause. She kept looking in the distance, away from the Arabesques. She’d been consumed far too well, and now it was too late to retract.
“Like reflections in the water”, she kept saying. She wasn’t speaking to me, or perhaps to anybody in particular. She managed to raise a faltering gaze at my violin case, and I turned around to grab my instrument.
“Would you make one for me?” She managed before slipping into the haze again.
One Friday evening, after the violin lesson, the housewife had me over.
“Une infant défunte!” She smiled sucking a cigarette, pleased by her knowledge of the piece. And I gave her a slight nod, smiling from over the chin rest. She arose and clutched my back, planting gentle kisses along my spine, “Don’t I get a reward?”
When I got home that night, I worked on the French polish. It had been a few weeks now, and I traced patient strokes across the waist of the instrument, like I’d done each day for hours. Our violins were the cheapest of the lot, mine and M’s. We played Rachmaninoff on our ply board fiddles armed with four fine tuners, dreaming of requiems, Turkish marches and Hungarian dances. Where had M. lost herself? Her eyes were tender, her form was svelte. She was the dying princess lost in the music she could no longer play. I wonder whether along the frayed hem of her heart, she dreams of the French poets we’d once wept to.
I remember reading out Le Horla to her one evening, and how I savoured her fright. Had I left her far behind by the canal?
If only we could see through time, and communicate, I’d not lose her. For all the men who swore her their affections one night and had her waiting on some park bench for evenings hence, for all her idols that she carried in her heart, I’d tell her to forgive herself. I’d tell her it was the Horla, and not her who was inadequate.
“Like reflections in the water.”
I walked up the hill to the bookstore with M’s violin a week later, but it was shut. I walked over to the rear door, but it was locked as well. They weren’t here. I tried asking around, but all I could string together was that she’d had a stroke, and was taken to some hospital in the city. I stood there for a while, looking at her window by which she had the Sony turntable. I turned around and tried figuring what it was that she was searching for that day over these rolling blue hills. I wonder whether it was still there. I wonder whether she took it away with her music.
I walked back to my workshop in a lonely secrecy. In perfect reason, I turned the knob, and walked inside, and shut the door behind me.
I heard of her death a week later. Her uncle came by and gave me the news. I tried giving him the violin I made for M, but he kept shaking his head. “I can’t have it”, he said, “We can’t afford to have any more of her.” A mournful smile appeared on his face. And that was it.
I moved back to the old city, to the last shreds of her. Each evening, I would walk to the canal and look at the reflections in the water that so consumed her. Perhaps it was all she ever dreamt of: Les Reflets dans l’eau.