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Étude

Vasilis Afxentiou
[vafx@hol.gr]

"You do not know how to give," he had said last night. "You try, but do not know how. And you must learn what you want in return."

           Defeated, she lifted the sheet off herself and sat up on the edge of the bed. With effort she got up, slipped her jeans on, and went to study.

           She didn't wake Dino up, but brought with her a mug of Nescafé and settled in the chair. The pungency of the black brew briefly dispersed the sleepiness in her head.

           She had heard the melody one day in the past. But her fingers today felt thick, clumsy, undisciplined. The tips were blistered on the left hand and her thumb cramped from fatigue.

           "How are your exercises proceeding?" Anastasi had asked her at the music conservatory the other day, giving her a pat as she stretched the knotted muscles of her back.

           "Just fine."

           He had looked at her with those knowing eyes, weighing and regarding, as he stood in front of her, twice attempting to say something that he did not.

           She enjoyed watching his curiously delicate manner. He used his large hazel eyes to tell more than his tongue but that morning she pretended to busy herself preparing, not looking at him for long, for she knew he was probing her. She had even evaded their usual patter.

           "You're not well?" he had finally acquiesced.

           "Not very. It'll pass."

           He put the stool and foot rest in place, shifted ebulliently with brisk, spirited movement. And he paused a little. He did not sit immediately, but delayed this moment of focus. He relinquished himself to it as thoroughly as to his playing. He was never hurried at this particular stage; he never rushed at this point. It was, she thought, a kind of liturgy in him, just as when he was performing, he was undividedly surrendering.

           Yet Anastasi could be as utterly grave or severe. His reproaches were the bleakest she had ever seen. He taught as an evangelist preached. It was for this thoroughness, she imagined, that she felt esteem for him.

           Ilianna now raised the instrument off her lap and laid it upright next to a desk scattered with music sheets, a copy of "Chosen Country" by J. dos Passos, and Mary Magdalene portrayed weeping.

           She heard Dino get up and she shut her eyes. The tiny garret closed in on her and a sudden vortex made her slump to one side. She caught herself from falling and sprung her slight, lean torso up straight on the uncomfortable chair.

           Two years, Anastasi had said. Two hard years for the fingers to break in. "Don't give up," was his favourite infamous statement, "you come to me with a perfect right hand."

           She whiffed the heavy blue smoke meandering into her cubby-hole study from the Gauloises Dino was smoking in the kitchen. Her throat tightened and her nostrils pinched. He was making Greek coffee. Its rich fragrance mingled, somewhere along the way, with the silty wafts from his cigarette and made her head whirl. Oblivious to her discomfort she could hear him murmuring -- singing, "Take my hand/Take my whole life too..." to himself the King was The King for him.

           She sat there listening and listlessly stared at the only two paintings in the apartment, one was an Andrew Wyeth and the other a Norton Simon. They represented her wealth and were sent by her mother, who had brought them from Astoria, Long Island, six months after Ilianna had departed from her home.

           She had been raised in the ancient neighbourhood of Plaka in a house of post-classical architecture that vaunted better days right after the war. Her family was moderately wealthy and an old Athenian family, endorsing the old ways, trying hard not to be assimilated by the onrush of world changes fostered by satellite television and her media-nurtured generation. From childhood she had known that her future was already planned out. She would be sent to college, earn her degree, and marry a man with a solid profession, perhaps even a shipowner. But all that had changed when one morning she left her home with rucksack bearing down on her thin shoulders and trust in a calling.

And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry:
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;

came the Burns' hyperbole in the form of a TV commercial for scotch whisky from the kitchen where Dino sat.

           They had been together for almost a year. Then she was nineteen and he twenty-three. He was like nobody she had ever met before. He didn't worry any more about the years ahead than did cattle in green pastures. There was a primal manner in his air and a puerile spontaneity that uninhibited her. He had a careering way about him, like a twentieth century gladiator, all was intense sport, love-making, drinking, prancing his shiny second-hand Harley as if he were Marlon Brando and she the counter waitress.

           His family had been killed in a train disaster when he was four. He had been on his own since he was twelve, when he had done away with the source of his obstacles by hurtling over a glass-strewn wall. The opportunity had come, just before Christmas dawn, another inmate and he had scaled the shard-sowed barrier to freedom, bloodied and frost-bitten. Nightmares of the orphanage persisted to this day.

           A garage owner had offered him a job and Dino had taken his courage in both hands. Though he was still a boy then, he grew up fast to become a man. Yet the strong arms transformed to comforting wings at night. She could have let her life surrender into his and part with all that tortured her, walk away from her own honeyed trial, into the tangy freedom his world promised.

           The guitar stood waiting. Elegant, skillfully crafted, painful, it ignored her musings and the fever in her hands. Two years had passed four months ago, and still the appendages moved slowly, sluggishly, producing a cacophony. There were days when she played adeptly, but few. She could not account for it; if she could only do that.

           Dino's deep, black eyes were upon her from where he sat, this minute. She could feel their moot, fixed look. It had been a bad night, last night. A bad night for love. There had been depression in the dark of the room, a tiredness she felt more often than not. He had finally left her and gone to the other end of the bed, and she had lain alone and silent, and sirocco-warm tears ebbed out of her scouring the hours by.

           The night faded once more whence it came. She massaged the thumb muscle to lessen the stiffness. Veins stood out like winding blue worms on her forearm and the back of her hand. Dipping the fingers into the dish of alcohol temporarily numbed them.

           The index finger puffed out at the bottom, tapering like an obelisk of flesh to a firm phalanx. A straight dark line of clotted blood scarred the once soft tissue behind the finger nail. Friction from the repeated bare exercises maintained the wound, fresh and visible. All were the credits of the craft. All the visible signs of hard, diligent work were there. Texture was not.

           Dino brushed by her on his way out. She smelled the tobacco on his clothes. He stood by the door not speaking, then closed it behind him.

           "The classical guitar is like a man," had been Anastasi's first words that decisive March noon. Ilianna's first lesson had begun. "He will want and want some more. You will hate and love him. Give yourself to him and he will give everything to you; as someone once said, 'Love is, above all, the gift of oneself'."

           Anastasi had then embraced the guitar and began to play the étude. Ilianna's last minute doubts dissolved with certainty. Each undulating stroke charged a longing that had so long been left yearning for its mate. The cords mingled and blended, entwined and braided, melded and fused, weaving a dulcet onomatopoeia of counterpoint replenishing her every pore, progressing, so ever softly turning, spinning sheer summer air into a gossamer completion that longingly never came. The tinkling of the strings echoed, ignoring, conquering time.

           "The moan of doves in immemorial elms/And murmuring of innumerable bees -- do you hear him, do you hear Maestro Tennyson's sigh in the pluckings? You are in love, no?" Anastasi had remarked, putting the guitar down.

           Yes.

           But the instrument before her seemed unconcerned, aloof, like Dino. Both promised ecstasy, both wanted her soul. But she had not the strength to serve two masters.

           When she had awaken it was a comfort to know that the entire day would belong to her, to be alone. But by the time she got through the Segovia scales, even the light burden of the instrument was too much for her to hold. She had not slept much during the night, she realized, for her eyelids drooped more often than not. She had a drifty feeling that made her dreamlike and lose herself.

           "Rest if you must,/but don't you quit." came Cushing's words from the poem Anastasi had drilled into her memory two years before.

           Finally, she put the guitar down. The noon sun rays dabbed the wall next to her with a craggy segment of column from the Parthenon beyond. She found herself glide into oblivion on the chair. She dozed. She was overwhelmed by her dreaming of her mother and felt happiness.

           She was seldom like this, not ever since they had met. But now, like a torrent, the cumulated snags in their relationship suddenly all deluged upon her, and she was surprised that she did nothing to stop the onset. She recollected afresh the quarrel the night before, recalled the options remaining -- put to her; about the music, she could not remember what had been said to be wrong with it; possibly it was not the music; she did not know. She retained only the oppressive, mostly mute, suffocation of Dino's demands.

           At the recollection she began to tremble for an instant, uncontrollably, and gasp for more air to enter her lungs. It had been a turbulent episode, the worse; like an Aegean August gale, with only a hint of warning, that drowns one unsuspectingly. She was sinking, she told herself. She was feeble against his wants -- whatever these were. And perhaps the giving on her part would never quench the needing on his.

           The fingers felt better. She dipped them once more and waited for them to dry. The melody came again, this time urging and stronger than before. She picked up the guitar and gave, yielding herself to it. There was a knock on the door that she did not hear.

           She was solely aware that the mellifluous pluckings did not come from the instrument but from her. Like heartbeats, they were as much hers as her heart's. A presence was there, completing a metamorphosis. Unlike before, she knew, the threshold now was scaled, the union of her and her dream realized. She played, all of her, and did not stop her care because now she could not. Like the pulsing in her chest, her will no longer participated in its existence. A being had been freed, and free it reigned over a kingdom of two. The knocking stopped, the footsteps died softly away behind the closed door, and the room glowed in the summer afternoon with Ilianna and a sublime étude.



About the Author (click here) © 1999 Vasilis Afxentiou, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

This story also appears in Vasilis's anthology Potpourria.


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