For Piano and Voice

by Lora Rivera

Ah! Vous dirai-je Maman
To the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”

On the end table beside the armchair where Nisha sat, tense and engulfed by cushions, a black cylindrical voicebox sometimes reflected back the light of the chandelier in the great room beyond.  Nisha carefully did not look at it.  She looked nowhere but at the three octaves of piano keys angling toward her, the base notes invisible from her corner.  Lacquered fingers depressed these white and black keys confidently.  Although Nisha’s gaze was riveted there, it was not the pianist’s song that held her attention.

She had been sitting for several hours, listening through the evening shadows to the soft tremolo of dancing voices.  The air, thickened by fireplace smoke, by baked ham and pine and pumpkin candles, by the dizzying mélange of perfumes, was just heavy enough to accommodate the dance Nisha had herself performed countless times over the years.  It was a dance of eyelashes and swirling skirts, of polished shoes and cufflinks, of furtive glances, and above all the bright splash of champagne in the bowels of gold-rimmed crystal.  And voices.

Nisha sighed, pushing the white Persian cat from her lap for the fourth time that night and brushing the long fur from her gray velvet gown.  She adjusted her pearls and huddled deeper into the cushions of the armchair, her eyes drifting to the jouncing of her most adept student’s fingers on the baby grand.  The piece, 12 Variations on ‘Ah, Vous Dirai-Je, Maman.’ Feelingless, but perfected.  Nisha could not fault Diane Lazear a single note.

Moi, je dis que les bonbons valent mieux que la raison, mouthed Nisha, smiling tightly.  Sweets are worth more than reason.

Nisha’s aging mother floated by in rhinestones and white gloves and sat on the arm of the sofa beside the armchair, making even that awkward perch somehow glamorous, and stroked her daughter’s black hair.

“You’re out here by yourself.”

Nisha nodded, refocusing her gaze over her mother’s head and across the piano into the room proper.  Thirty, perhaps forty, individuals moved about the great room, each with a glass of liquor, eyes too intent on the voice of the person whose hands they were not quite touching.

Her mother’s breath smelled like caramels.

“You shouldn’t be all alone so close to Christmas,” said her mother, frowning.

Nisha shrugged and scanned the room for her students, her own mouth unconsciously mimicking her mother’s when she noticed two of them, Ryan and Bella, in the corner near the bar.  She had a strict No Philandering While on the Job policy, which had gotten her through Julliard.  Those two wouldn’t last the first rigorous semester.

“Nish.”  That voice her mother always used when she was about to get her way. “What is going on?  It’s been too long.  You can’t live the rest of your life . . .”

Nisha signed quickly, too quickly, she knew, for her mother to understand fully.  She also mouthed the words, although she hated the fact that speech was so deeply ingrained that she couldn’t keep her lips from moving when she was signing.  It made the memory more acute: she, a soprano with a four octave range, who’d had a full scholarship for Voice, could no longer speak—or she could, but only with a mechanical device that rendered her terrifying to small children.

Signing was still strange for her.  And embarrassing.  She’d had to take classes with ASL students after the accident.  Their language had a non-linear quality to it she couldn’t understand until she’d translated linearly.  At that point, it was too late.  She’d become confused, and what was supposed to be received as an impression, or as a series of visual impressions, had already lost some of its power and meaning by her very translation.

She signed: You want to parade me around and tell stories to all your rich friends Her mother would probably understand only parade and rich friends.

“You’re too lovely tonight to hide out here,” said her mother sternly.  “Of course, I want to show you to my friends.  And they’re your friends, too.”

Not anymore Nisha grimaced.  Lovely

Nisha was tall, Indian on her father’s side, French on her mother’s, had fine cheekbones and a stubborn jaw, dark eyes, a warm complexion, and just enough of a nose that she wouldn’t be mistaken for anyone else.  All these features were lovely.  And none of them were hers.  They belonged to her, but she was not born with them.  They were products of her parents’ money, and although she was grateful to her mother’s insistence on cosmetic surgery after the accident, she was angry, too, that both her parents pretended her cheeks and jaw and neck, the skin on her chest and arms, her beautifully individual nose, were the same features that appeared in Nisha’s eighteen-year-old high school glamour shots from nearly ten years ago.

Her mother gripped Nisha’s hand.  “You are being morose.  There’s no reason for it.  You are lovely, and any number of men out there—”

Nisha signed furiously: Do you think I’m stupid too as well as mute   I’m not like them anymore   I don’t belong   leave me alone

“That’s not polite, Nisha.”

That voice again, as if her mother could frown and the world would stop spinning.  To think Nisha had been like that.  There were times when she felt she had been given a grace, an unlucky salvation.

I am the dreamer who woke

“You are full of yourself,” said her mother tersely.  A tiny lock of hair had come loose from the sleek knot at the nape of her neck.

Nisha nodded and slipped the bit of hair back into place.

Her mother frowned again, and then relaxed, sipped her champagne, smiled.

“I want to introduce you to a friend,” she said.  “He’s the son of your father’s newest partner, Dr. John Hartford, who’s doing some sort of nuclear research with CERN, if I remember.  He’s still in Switzerland, but Benjamin is a personal favorite of mine, and I’ve known his mother Donna a long time.”

Nisha nodded.  Andrea Flanders, Nisha’s most recently acquired virtuoso, laughed loudly across the room, and then squealed when she found she’d spilled wine on the back of her hand.  The young man she was talking with whipped out a handkerchief with the kind of expertise only acquired by long acquaintance with Christmas parties of the caliber thrown by Nisha’s parents.  He wiped Andrea’s hand.

“You’ll come meet him, then,” said her mother, dumping the cat from the sofa.  “Down, Monsieur Fluff, or I’ll have you shaved.  He’s darling, Nish, a perfect gentleman.”

Nisha rose, gestured at Diane to continue on to another Mozart number, and followed her mother through the heady air into the middle of the great room.

Voices.  Voices everywhere.

“Benjamin, there you are!”

A man in maybe his late twenties, a little older than Nisha perhaps, who wore a designer black suit and deep burgundy tie, whose dark hair attested to mornings spent performing the achingly tedious affair of maneuvering every strand into position as if into military parade rank, and of staring, afterward, into the mirror one more long moment to be sure the masterpiece would not all come undone in a sudden puff of errant wind, turned to flash white teeth at Nisha’s mother and bow slightly while taking her mother’s hand.

Her mother’s face flushed.

“I have the pleasure, Benjamin, of introducing you to my daughter Nisha.  I don’t suppose you’ve met before.”

“Enchanted.”  He nodded at Nisha, whose cheeks grew mutinously warm.

“She doesn’t speak, Benjamin, poor darling, though she’s magnificent at the piano.”

“These are her students, then?  I arrived late, I’m afraid, and didn’t hear the introduction.”

Her mother bobbed her head.  “That’s Diane Lazear playing a Sonata—yes, Nisha?  Oh, well, I never was good at remembering which piece was what–”

Nisha signed, Concerto Number 24 in C minor

“—Mozart, at any rate,” said her mother, smiling indulgently at Nisha.  “It’s beautiful, no?”

“One of his finest.”

Nisha glanced at Benjamin in surprise, but her mother had already gone into a long discussion of Nisha’s own burgeoning and so-far-triumphal musical career, her years studying at Julliard, the offer she had received to teach there, her compositions and opera: “The Setting of the Norwegian Sun is being performed at the Grand next month.”

“How wonderful.”

“Yes, it really is.  She’s an affinity for minor keys, though, I’m afraid.”

They both smiled at her.

“Really,” continued her mother, “you’d think her life was tragic, the way she rips out sheet after sheet of tear-jerkers.”

“Tear-jerkers.”  Benjamin’s expression was unreadable.

Nisha stared, horrified, at her mother.  The following year, she’d be starting as a professor at Julliard; she’d be dealing with prodigies only a few years her junior.  Her mother had called her opera a tear-jerker, like some cheap Hollywood movie that had debuted as a hardback bestseller only a few months before, to be forgotten by nearly all its viewers the following week.  Years ago, she would have scolded her mother, would have laughed and looked up at Benjamin through mascara-thick eyelashes, would have proceeded to sweep him off his feet and then fuck him—as Andrea would probably do to what’s-his-name just as soon as the young man nursing her wine-spilled hand had been properly liquored—but Nisha was done with the debonair type, Benjamin included.  Though he had nice eyes.

Alone on Christmas!  She wanted to laugh outright at her mother’s ludicrousness.

“Benjamin, your glass is empty, and Nisha’s probably been too busy with her students to get anything at all.”  Her mother clucked her tongue.  “I’ll be right back.”

She glided across the room as if over ice.

Nisha rolled her eyes.

“You’re unkind,” said Benjamin softly.  “She is your mother.”

Nisha swallowed, looked around, realized that her artificial voice box was still over by the armchair on the end table, and held up a finger.  Why she cared, why she felt like she had to defend herself from him, she didn’t know, but her heart thumped, and her face flushed as she hurried from him and grabbed paper and a pen from the desk in her father’s study at the far end of the long hallway that led out into the foyer.

When she returned and found him, surprisingly, still waiting, she wrote, That’s no excuse.

He tilted his head.  Nisha noticed her mother had not returned with the promised drinks; she was laughing at a joke told by one of Nisha’s father’s friends, fanning herself with her hand.

Benjamin said nothing as he gazed at the paper; Nisha offered nothing more.

Diane Lazear hit a wrong note, and Nisha winced.  Scribbling hastily, she wrote, Diane has never played for an audience this large.

“She’s very good.”

She’s stiff, like a machine. No feeling.

Benjamin paused, cocking his head, staring vacantly in the direction of the piano.  When the song was over, he sighed.  “I would give my right arm to play music like that, stiff or not.”

Nisha had begun writing, Both arms, your legs? How about, when Benjamin said, “My father’s in Switzerland, did your mother tell you?”

She crumbled the paper and nodded.

“May I see your garden?”

Surprised, she nodded again.  She drew him along through the hall, down a short flight of stairs and into the library.  The doors opened onto a veranda.  Benjamin closed the doors after them.

The air was bright and cold, light without the scent of food and perfume, without the heat of bodies and the smoke from candles and fireplaces.  Nisha hugged herself.  The skin on her arms had already begun to ripple into goose bumps.  Snow had fallen earlier, spattering the cold stone steps and the garden below; frosted Christmas LEDs lined the branches of dark firs and peeked out from beneath small accumulations of snow along the benches and trellises twisting along the garden path.

I am afraid there is not much to see, she signed to him, for she’d left her paper indoors.

Perhaps Benjamin did not know sign language; he stared at her face for a moment, and then looked out on the garden.  His breath was gray as he spoke.

“He’s working at ISOLDE.  I don’t quite understand it all.  Studying the beta-decay of radioactive isotopes or some such physics-talk.  What do you think?  He’s not here, you see, he’s never here, same as when I was a kid.  Even when he’s here he isn’t here, you understand.  His mind is always gone, off in that place, that world of equations and periodic elements.  He’s missing out on the real world for his miniature one.”

She signed, This is not the real world

Benjamin gave her a long, thoughtful look.  “I think he’s an amazing man,” he said finally.  He had watched her hands.  Had he heard what they said?

He gave a small laugh, then; an awkward, odd sort of laugh that often accompanied this sort of unsolicited intimacy from people Nisha barely knew.

“What does it matter, right?” he said, grinning out at the garden and shaking his head.  “Whether he is or isn’t, an amazing man?”

The wind gusted, and Nisha shivered.

“I’m sorry,” said Benjamin, shrugging quickly out of his coat.  “And I’m supposed to be a gentleman.”  He helped her into it and then paused, his fingers on the lapels.  His face was very near hers.  His lips parted, wet.  He had just licked them.

“I wondered,” he continued softly, “when your mother told me about you earlier.  She didn’t tell me how it happened.”

Nisha had thought when she was recovering in the hospital bed, trying to piece together in her mind the shreds of her life as it had been, wondering which aspects were salvageable, that people didn’t usually ask about accidents.  But somehow, her case was different.  They pried because they were clumsy, talking to a mouth unable to respond.  And because they couldn’t understand her, they tried to commiserate.  And afterwards, how nervous and distant they became!

But Benjamin, still so near, pulled the lapels of his coat shut, and his knuckles brushed her throat where her larynx had been.  She jerked back.

I have to check on my students, she signed, and turned to slip back through the door, back into the warm, sweet-saturated air of her parents’ mansion.  She swept into the alcove on the far side of the piano, touched Diane’s shoulder and received a headshake—no, she was not yet tired, she could do a few more pieces—and curled up in her armchair.  The fat white Persian immediately claimed her lap, and this time Nisha didn’t bother to push him off.  She took a few deep breaths.

On the table beside her right hand lay her black, battery-operated larynx.  She lifted it, closed her eyes, and put the vibrator to her throat.  “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman, ce qui cause mon tourment? It was a French nursery rhyme American children sang to the words and tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Ah! Will I tell you, Mother, what’s causing my torment?  Nisha could hear the pitches in her head, but the voice that emitted from her mouth was loud and robotic.  Diane missed a note but recovered fluidly.

“What is the cause of your torment?”

Nisha jumped, her movement dislodging the cat.  Benjamin sat on the sofa at her elbow, head tilted again the way it had been when he was listening so intently to Diane’s performance.

She signed, Papa wants me to reason like a grown up but I say that sweets are worth more than reason

She grinned at him suddenly.  Because his eyes had lit up, recognizing the rest of the verse.  Because it meant he understood her language.  But no, it was not her language; it was simply the only language left to her.

He licked his bottom lip.  “Will you play something?  Play something from your opera.”

A tragedy my opera, she signed.  She gestured at the thirteen-foot Christmas tree near the entryway resplendent with shining red and gold balls and bright icicles.

“Christmas is the most tragic time of year,” said Benjamin.

And because she could not tell whether he was serious, uttering some curious, enigmatic kindness for people whose lives were not like his own, Nisha agreed to play.  Diane rose graciously after finishing the second movement of the piece she had been working through, and stood on Nisha’s left, as if to turn pages.

“I think I have the score in my folder in the foyer,” offered Diane, but Nisha shook her head.  She would play from “August’s Song.”  After the lovers’ tryst and their fatal undertaking to resurrect their stillborn son, following a series of perverse commands from the sadistic priestess who agreed to carry their child, Aren sings of the coming of winter and offers a tribute to his partner’s resulting suicide.

Benjamin stood near Diane’s shoulder, on her student’s other side, and too far for Nisha to see him without looking up from the piano.  She could hear Diane whispering the story to him as she played.  In the great room, conversations inconvenienced by the jarring minor chords grew first hushed and then rejoined even louder, as if to drown out the piano’s voice.

Halfway through, Nisha paused at the end of a fermata to slip out of Benjamin’s coat, which had become too warm in the stifling heat of the room, and let it fall to the floor.  After rescuing the coat, he returned to Diane’s side, bent toward her ear, and murmured the question that had made Nisha leave him on the terraced patio overlooking the snow-covered garden.

Nisha glanced at him, but he was not looking at her, and she felt her pulse quicken.  As she bent more deeply into the lyric passages, Nisha listened in her mind for the dance of Aren’s voice.  It did not prevent her from hearing Diane’s response, still in a timid whisper, yet loud, much louder than the piano, so much louder than any of the voices in that room, loud like the fire had been, the roar of it, and the blast of heat in her ears.

Her senior year at Julliard, her tiny studio apartment with its red, chipping wood paneling, mauve curtains, a poster-sized framed first page of a score by Stravinsky.  She’d been plucking out an easy third cello line near the window.

Sometimes, Diane’s voice drifted through the memory.  “She’d been sleeping and the stove was on . . .  a few blocks from campus.”

She’d curled up on the sofa and shut the window, being cold.  An omelet for dinner, and probably the personalized linens her parents had given her as a Christmas gift, lying on the counter still in their box.  Flames were so bright and so dark all at once.  And loud.

“. . . the whole place on fire.  Anybody else would have just left everything and got out.  But not her.  And maybe that’s not true.  Maybe if I had my music in there—she was writing the opera at the time—maybe I wouldn’t have left until I had everything either.  She’d gotten it in her arms, but then there was an explosion.  They said some chemicals were the cause, went up in flames, too, along with all the wood.  And a violin, a cello, and a piano.  God.  She’d had it in her hands.”

Diane paused, listening, and Nisha felt the woman’s eyes, felt Benjamin’s eyes, felt their sadness, their sympathy.  The way one would look at a misshapen, ugly wound on a once-beautiful face.  She focused on the keys, on the movement of the music.  She did not want their sympathy: she spoke a strange tongue; she was an impostor.  Her very presence shattered their careful politeness, their delicate sensibilities frustrated by her unwillingness—no, she’d had enough of lies—her inability to play their games.  She was to blame for Diane’s nervousness, for Benjamin’s efforts to make her feel human.  It was the first party she had attended after the accident.  She was the reason for the missteps in tonight’s dance, the blunders and broken rhythms.  They were not calloused, Benjamin and Diane.  Had they ever seen a face like hers among all the throngs of masks worn at her parents’ parties?  A voiceless monster.  Anyone would gawk.

Diane went on, and this time, no flames accompanied her.  “It’s called ‘August’s Song.’  She didn’t write it until after the accident.  Mostly she’d had to rewrite the entire opera from memory.  But this piece she wrote first.  Only months later, while she was recovering from reconstructive surgery.  They did their best on everything they could.  It was because it was such a small, enclosed space.  That studio, with the windows and doors shut.  She inhaled all that super-heated smoke and it just destroyed her larynx.  They had to take it out.  Third degree burns.  And it’s a wonder it didn’t destroy her lungs, too.”

Nisha glanced up for a moment to see Benjamin’s eyes on her.  She did not look up again.  The song finished on a twisted, broken arpeggio, ending on the aggravatingly unfulfilling Picardy third, the promise of happy endings.  Nisha plowed on to another part of the opera.  She heard their voices over the smooth black piano lacquer, heard her own name several times.  She felt them leave the piano, the sound of their voices fading into the background of conversations.  Her students approached intermittently to ask if she was tired, if they should take their turn, but she did not reply except to shake her head.  She played set after set until a herd of slightly offbeat footsteps and clacking heels echoed through the foyer, voices well-wishing and Merry Christmasing, and at last the hollow boom of the front door.  Her parent’s voices sighed goodnights.

“Nish,” said her mother through a huge yawn delivered through the fingertips of her white gloves.  “You should go to bed.  It’s almost four in the morning.”

Nisha looked up, blinking, for her eyes had become glued to the keys in a daze.  She almost said, “I’ll just play one more,” before realizing that she couldn’t say anything.  Nor could she sign with her fingers still scudding along the piano keys.  Her hands were like machines attached to her wrists.  Even if she had wanted to stop, it would have been impossible.  Impossible now to look up, or earlier—when Benjamin’s hands had been so very close to her face, to the flesh of her neck, even if it was not her own flesh!—impossible to be still for that moment longer, to linger there and wait. . . . But for what?  A shudder, a thick voiceless gulp, an awkward apology?  No, it was over: She would not attend any more of her parents’ parties.  Her hands moved faster, melody like an imprecation—or a protestation?  She could not be sure; they were tearing through the notes too quickly.

Her mother stared at her for another minute or two.  Finally, she sat on the edge of the piano bench and reached around Nisha’s head to smooth her hair.  For a brief moment, Nisha felt the warmth of her mother’s hand, the flick of a fingernail against her scalp near her ear.  The caress slid down the length of her hair and fell to her waist.

“Benjamin’s a nice boy, Nish,” said her mother.  She sighed, resting her head against her daughter’s shoulder as Nisha continued to play.  “Donna told me he studied sign language in college.  He would have made a good match.”

Nisha couldn’t remember what the piece was; the notes were all wrong.

“He probably doesn’t like Diane as much as he does you, anyway,” continued her mother.  “You’re much prettier.  Now, that’s an interesting song.  What’s it called?”

Nisha lifted her hands momentarily from the piano.  There were wrinkles on her knuckles, fine crisscrossing wrinkles all over the backs of her hands, skin just beginning to ripple softly like a disturbed pool.

Several minutes went by.  She felt her mother rise and kiss her forehead, heard the thin stilettos tapping across the floor, stopping somewhere near the bar.

The piano came to life again.  Mozart’s first variation, one stroked key at a time: Ah—Vous—Di—rai—Je—Ma—man.


She stopped playing and looked up.  Her mother seemed ancient, holding onto the stair railing like that, as if she was unable to raise her foot to the next step.  The strap of her dress was slipping, and one of her gloves had bunched at the wrist, making the fabric come up only to the elbow.

“I just thought . . .” Her mother shook her head.  “I was so sure he was right for you.”

In the empty room, the sound of the cat’s purr as it rubbed up against the legs of the piano bench was accompanied only by the last note Nisha had played before looking at her mother.  Her foot had begun to ache from holding the pedal.  On the air, the note attenuated gently, resonating, an almost imperceptible passing.

LORA RIVERA is currently finishing her MFA at the University of Arizona. She works for Claire Gerus Literary Agency in Tucson and lives with her husband and three cats. She writes literary and young adult fiction, as well as juvenile fantasy, a love she owes to Mandala’s, a tiny used book store in her hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida. Her fiction can be found in A cappella Zoo and in forthcoming spring editions of MARY Magazine, Amarillo Bay, Two-Bit Magazine, and Crash, with short excerpts appearing on her blog:

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