by Lily Bell
A musican's story. A song doesn't have to be a masterpiece to be important.
A collection of piano compositions by S. Mille
If notability is determined by the number of publishers offering to print your memoirs, then I’ve finally achieved it. I can only offer my condolences to the other musicians who have also reached this point in their careers. In fact, perhaps I should start warning young conservatory students not to become successful - it’s horribly exhausting. There are times when the starving artist ideal seems perfectly legitimate, or at the very least less demanding on your patience. (Provided that you actually have any. You can get away with having no patience. I should know.)
Nevertheless, the current fashion is to paint yourself a successful man of the world, not a starving artist. And if popular opinion can be believed, the best way to make sure that people know just how successful you are...is to write a memoir. I’ll be honest, I don’t understand this trend. We musicians are a loud lot. Surely we can make do with oral history? I know people who speak so much that we’ll be hearing their echoes for years yet. I can only imagine what future generations will think of them - of us. Memoirs are embarrassingly permanent, you know. A hundred years from now, they will certainly wince when they learn about the old days - shouldn’t we try to deprive them of that pleasure?
Alas, it seems that no one agrees with me.
I owe the existence of this book to a great many people. Every printing company that ever sent their agents to my door can claim a small share of the responsibility. They chipped away at my resolve until I finally gave in.
It was not my idea to share these songs with anyone. Even now, the collection that I’m releasing to the public is not complete. Some of the melodies tucked away in my journals will never leave them. They are too heavy - it’s hard to even look at them sometimes. They have the weight of memories pushing them down. I plan to take them with me to the end.
By now you might have flipped through the book, wondering why the foreword in a music book takes up so much space. I’m afraid that I couldn’t bring myself to present these little pieces without explaining their origins, however complicated the story may be. If you would like to skip to the music, feel free to do so. That’s what I would do.
For those interested in what I have to say, however, there’s a lot to be said.
My name is Sabian Mille. My father was an accountant - the accountant - in Round Town, a tiny place that no one remembers. I can’t think of a single important thing that ever happened there. It was less of a town than it was an extended alley of the more well-known city of Rousa. I don’t have anything to say about Rousa that you wouldn’t already know, but Round Town...well. There is a very illustrative tale that Round Towners tell about how the place got its name. The story goes that a rude traveler in Rousa proper kept trying to haggle down the price of his room and the innskeeper eventually got fed up, telling him to find a cheaper place “around town” if he was so inclined. Said traveler ended up in the hostel near my childhood home, and a cockroach almost choked him to death by crawling into his mouth.
I’m sure that the tale has been embellished over the years, but even in its current form, I can see it happening. Round Town is barely a village for humans, but it’s a metropolis for vermin. If Rousa was a spiderweb, Round Town would be the wrecked remains of a trespassing moth - dirty, struggling, and hopelessly entangled by its proximity to something higher on the food chain.
Perhaps the analogy is not as enlightening as I want it to be, but I can’t think of a better one.
At any point, even my father realized that I had no real future if I stayed in that place. When I was fifteen and sullen enough to leave home (though the two seem to go together, don’t they?) he sent me to a newly built music store at the north end of Rousa because a traveling salesman convinced him that it would be a good way to prepare me for a career in trade. Unfortunately, the music store owner was not terribly versed in the art of trade either; I have always wondered how he managed to turn a profit in those early days. He was, however, perfectly pleased to hear that my father was an accountant, and he set about molding me in the same way. To this day, I can add up a ledger in my sleep, and sometimes I actually do.
That summer was a time for unnecessary arithmetic lessons, exasperated realizations that I was becoming my father, and most importantly, the opportunity to play the piano for the first time. People have asked me about the first piece I ever played, but I don’t remember it. The last piece I played for the owner, the one that convinced him I had talent, made a much bigger impression on me. I won’t print it here. I have no interest in causing shortages of the piece in music stores. All you really need to know is that he pulled a few strings and I somehow ended up at the music conservatory, far from the career in trade my father had envisioned. I made my official concert debut five years later.
None of what I’ve said so far should be news to anyone. It’s the kind of story that fits perfectly into a pamphlet, or a memoir, or a biography. It’s the publishable version of events.
That is why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it isn’t completely true.
What very few people know is that I was completely bored by the time I finished my fourth year at the conservatory. I enjoyed the music, I enjoyed the atmosphere - I simply had no motivation to do anything. They told me to enter music contests, so I did. They told me to win, so I did. That was for the school’s sake, not mine.
There were many people who hated me for that. The ones who directly competed against me were especially caustic. Now I realize why - it must have been disheartening to lose to someone who never seemed to work for his victories. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. I didn’t mean to be anything at all. Things just fell in place without asking my opinion on the matter. Music was something that happened. You could say that I was an automaton of a person, albeit an automaton with an ego. I had no motivation to do music whatsoever. Compulsion, you see, is not quite the same as motivation. You can resent a compulsion.
It didn’t help that I had reached a sort of plateau, and there was nothing the school could do to push me past it. I am grateful to the teachers who realized what was wrong with me and left me to my own devices. In short, I was a loner with a mid-school-career crisis and a neglected talent for music. Picture a respectable publisher putting that in my biography.
Then I met Angel.
I say that phrase too often -
Then I met Angel, and things changed. Then I met Angel, and I changed. Then I met Angel, and the rest of my life suddenly made sense. Then I met Angel, and I was no longer making sense to myself.
- so I’ll apologize in advance.
For the incurably curious, I don’t call her Angel as a term of endearment. As far as I’m concerned, it is her name, though it technically comes from an old tradition of nicknaming new conservatory students with the title of the first song that they play for the class. Angel’s first choice was, as you might guess, a simple tune called Angel Nocturne. The Nocturne half disappeared because it was too much of a mouthful, and she was Angel ever after.
Yes, even to her own mother. You can’t get more official than that.
From what I remember of those early days, Angel mostly lived up to her name. I should say, rather, that she lived up to it for everyone but me, since I wasn’t exactly open to speaking with my classmates. She didn’t purposefully exclude me. She just didn’t realize I was there.
I mean that quite literally. Angel, you see, was blind. Had been since birth, in fact.
Naturally, she only noticed my existence when she came in early one morning and heard me playing on the class piano. I had, and apparently still have, what my teachers call a distinctive sound. I have often heard it described as clear and piercing to the point of harshness. I imagine that someone with ears as good as hers could pick it out faster than lightning. My music has never been very beautiful, but in this business you get farther by being identifiable than by being technically perfect. I don't know how Angel would have come across to the giants of the music world, but she had a distinctive sound too. You could feel it vibrating in the air, a certain carefree wavering at the end of her notes. It caught my attention the first time she played, and then her music settled like a fragile layer of nacre on a pearl, a whisper of air against my skin. It was easy to listen to, but hard to notice.
And yet, for all her talent, before that morning she had no idea that I existed. She sat herself down in a chair, stared vacantly in my direction, and asked, “Who on earth are you?”
That conversation...did not go smoothly. A little too much ego on my part, a little too much flippancy on hers. We walked away from the encounter with terrible first impressions of each other.
To my female readers, let me explain a small something about boys before age twenty. They are a little on the dense side, and a little more than a little on the stupid side. That is my only excuse for not realizing the reason she never noticed me. Not a very good one, is it? Her lack of recognition bothered me more than I would like to admit. I had gotten used to my notoriety. Life was considerably easier when people made introductions for me behind my back. People knew who I was and what I wanted - and they left me to it. This is still the way I prefer to conduct business. I admit that there isn’t much that has changed about me since I turned fifteen. I was not a naturally sociable person, or a naturally likeable person. The essential parts of my character, both good and bad, had already crystallized. I couldn’t blame anyone, least of all her, for staying away.
Now, to my male readers, let me explain an even smaller something about girls before age twenty. They are perfectly capable of changing their minds. I can’t imagine how my life would have been otherwise.
In the end, the conservatory may not have taught me much, but I am grateful for their pointed interference where Angel was involved. I was always the quiet one, but even back then, my teachers were unwilling to coddle me with solitude. In retrospect I think the other students would have incited a mutiny against them if they had given me any more special treatment than they already did. Most of the other senior students had taken on the role of a mentor once or twice for their younger classmates. The teachers never pushed me to do the same until Angel was whisked into class only a month before winter recess. In hindsight, I believe that they were waiting for someone who I could respect - not quite as an equal, but as an equal-in-training.
That someone happened to be Angel.
I thought I could live with that. She made me angry, with her casual, lilting chatter. She made me envious, with her beautiful tremolos and trills. But, most of all, she made me proud, knowing that I was still the better performer.
That should tell you something about the kind of person I was back then.
Even so, I can honestly claim to be one of the better teachers at the school, staff included. It is surprising how much patience I can feign under the right conditions, and Angel was a quick study. She was the sort of student that was worth teaching. Still, when I began taking her aside for extra lessons, it was harder than I could have possibly expected. Angel wasn’t just a little behind on the conservatory curriculum, she was years behind, courtesy of her family and her eyes and her life in general.
I didn’t know any of that. No one did. She, in her eternal adolescent wisdom, had failed to mention her circumstances out of a strange desire to be forgettable. She played so well - so eerily well - that no one even realized that she had taught herself the motions by trial and error, and she wasn't inclined to tell them. To this day I have never met anyone so well-adapted to life with only four senses. She was even capable of pouring her own tea without spilling a drop, and getting her own sugar, and drinking it as elegantly as the Queen of England. In fact, I was the first of her classmates to find out that she was blind, even though I was the very last to speak to her.
And when I did find out, it was because I yelled at her after she refused to play something a prima vista. We hadn't known each other for more than three weeks, but music fools you into thinking that you know someone on a more profound level than you actually do. There was a simple piece from the intermediate book, one that I figured would suit her, full of lovely but uncomplicated embellishments. I expected her to find it beneath her.
I still remember, vivid as anything, the way she stared at me, vacant and sad, and how small her voice was when she finally whispered, “I can’t read music.”
Forgive me for being minorly dumbfounded. It was such a basic skill that she seemed to be lacking - I wondered how she managed to get in if she couldn’t even read notes. I am not proud of the things I said to her. They were ugly assumptions about her family, accusations of bribing the school, even doubtful comments about her virginity. It is true what they say about children being cruel. I didn’t think before I spoke - or worse, I did.
I dragged on and on until the shame practically burned on her face. After I finally let her back into the conversation, she apologized for wasting my time. And then she tapped her finger next to one of her big, sad green eyes and told me she was blind. She had never learned to read music because she had never learned to read at all.
The revelation slid right over me, scraping down the edge of my hostility. I felt the oddest sense of...relief, shall we say. There was guilt on the fringe of it, but mostly I sucked in a breath of relief and that was the extent of my reaction. At that particular moment in time, all that mattered was that she was far too good to be stuck on such a minor issue. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to think that her blindness was anything more than that. Her potential was so obvious, and so obviously untapped. I wouldn’t have bothered to teach her otherwise.
If this shatters your illusions of me being a decent person, well, it probably ought to. For what it’s worth, I did apologize to her. We never mentioned the incident again, and I did not think much of it at the time. Only recently have I started obsessively dwelling on past mistakes. My younger self did not loathe himself nearly as much.
Instead, I loathed her, just a little.
My music was boring to me. Hers wasn’t. She was playing without her eyes, but I was playing without motivation - and that was infinitely worse. I was the better player, she was the better musician and the better person. She made me feel worse just by coming into close proximity. I began to think that her monicker was appropriately condescending as well as accurate. I really didn’t like her. Does it seem strange to say that, when you know that she changed my life? The time I spent with her made me feel alive, and yet for the longest time I didn't like her. Human nature is just that counter-intuitive.
I don't think I can underestimate how long her shadow was. No one can truthfully write about what death feels like, but I imagine that my earlier years were a close approximation. Having strangers take over your life is much like having them take your life. It was a slow, slow death. Having a choice in something, anything, did me a world of good. She never asked me for my time. For that alone, I was willing to give it to her.
That was the key to our partnership. Calling it companionship seems...cheap, somehow. It was a partnership in all the ways that matter. Somewhere between teaching her how to punch little notes out of a piece of paper and escorting her home for the holiday, she managed to worm herself into my side. My own personal weed.
As musicians, we were brilliant together. That was the start of it. Our styles fit like counterpoint, independent and complementary all at once.
We would spend hours together in the piano room, notes lightly chorusing each other. Then we would fall asleep together more often than not, sometimes slumped under the piano bench, other times curled behind the harp, and occasionally squeezed into the awkward space between drums. More than once, I would wake up to the sound of her fingers tapping out a melody on the keys of the practice piano we had more or less claimed as our territory. Life was a constant stream of movements - fighting in allegro, apologizing in adagio, bantering in scherzo. Then there were other things, too. Quiet little touches between our fingertips that weren’t entirely unexpected or unwelcome. Times when she would nudge her head under my chin because of the chill. The way her eyelashes fluttered against my throat. She was barely tall enough to wrap her arms around my neck, but her heartbeat was just as loud and fast as mine. Rondo.
I trusted her to trust me, and that was more than I had expected of anyone in a very long time.
She cried when spring came, after I made my debut and left the school to tour the stilted, aristocratic homes of hopeful patrons. She refused to do it in front of me, but her eyelids were crinkled and swollen. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that everyone could see. There are some kinds of ignorance that are better left untouched.
We slept together the night before my departure, in the most innocent sense. Mornings in bed suited her. Her slim, delicate collarbone cast deep shadows from the sun that peeked through the window. I told her she looked beautiful lying there next to me. She didn’t understand the sentiment, not until I put it differently - like matched chords thrumming through the piano strings, caught by the acoustics of the room until the sound soared to the ceiling. I think she understood what I was trying to say more than I did. That would be just like her.
There was no reliable mail service in those days, I had to wait until I had something worth sending. The cost of correspondence was just too hard to swallow otherwise. I was lucky not to wait long. Only three weeks after I left, a messenger from the conservatory imperiously presented me with a long list of dates for possible concert appearances. I convinced him to bring back a entire booklet full of short melodies packed in soft cotton, preserving the fragile holes I had clipped into them. Three weeks' worth of musical scraps she hadn’t been there to witness. No words, except on the tag: To Angel.
She was, in some ways, just as intensely private as I was. The pattern of holes was a code that only we knew how to read, round spaces that could be translated into rich scales and pitched refrains.
She replied with her own set of songs a few months later. I spent the entire day in front of the grand piano my most accomodating patron had delivered to my rooms, teasing out the lines of her music. She had done well for herself, and as her teacher, I was fiercely proud to hear it. As her partner - as her insignificantly significant other, it was a different story. There was an ache I could feel in my bones when I went through her work. I missed her constant presence, the steady thrum of our music. There were no jabs in my ribs at three in the morning and excited whispers about a new melody she was thinking about layering onto a well-worn, flawed piece.
I missed her, not her music. I already had her music. It rattled around inside my head like the contents of a half-full bottle. It might have been better to cut myself off entirely. There was no sense in trying to capture her through a sheet of paper - but I did tell you, after all, that I had stopped making sense to myself.
We continued this for about a year. The short melodies we sent to each other were letters, in a way. Impressions of the world. An aural travel log.
That was how we spoke to each other. Short of transplanting the school, it was the only way we could.
You might have already started to suspect why I’ve been using the past tense all this time.
A little over a year after I saw her last, the same messenger arrived with two letters - one from Angel herself and one from the conservatory. That was odd in and of itself. Angel didn’t know how to write, and she always complained that words on a paper felt impersonal. I had no such complaints. The handwriting I recognized as our classmate’s, but the words were clearly her own.
It was a very short letter. She told me things that couldn’t have been put to music - the crushing loneliness when I left, the man they had put in charge of taking care of her, the night she woke up with him inside of her.
She had been pregnant, and trying not to be. And that had gone horribly wrong. She apologized for it. Three or four times in the actual letter, in fact, and then again as a closing. Whoever wrote the letter had put her birth name. I stood there staring at the signature, feeling as though I didn’t know who she was when she wasn’t my Angel.
The second letter came from the school. They told me that, under the circumstances, they wanted me to come back.
I almost didn’t. The conservatory felt so far away at that point. The only real connection I had to the place was Angel. There was me, and then there was Angel and a different me. And then there was no Angel. It didn’t make sense, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t trying to make sense of it.
It had simply happened, as these things tend to do.
They buried her in a soft spot of earth on the conservatory grounds - the first grave at the school. I wrote to her mother, a task that everyone had been tacitly leaving for me. Why they did, I don’t know. We weren’t intimate the way people seemed to assume we were.
I arranged her funeral, but I didn't actually attend.
Half of the attendants went to find me later, fearing that I had fallen victim to some maudlin urge to join her. I couldn’t have. I was too angry with her. She shouldn’t have apologized. I wished, desperately, that she had known not to. I wished that I could have been there to say goodbye, at the very least. I wished - a lot of things. I missed her. I still do, like a right hand might miss its counterpart.
After her affairs were all cleaned up - I am still quite an accountant at heart, see? - I left the world hoping it would rot while I was gone, and for the first time since my apprenticeship, I went back to Round Town. I took everything that was important to me, including the practice piano we had spent hours on, and moved it into the attic of my old house. My father was still alive, not altogether pleased to see me but pleased enough to let me stay.
Death has a way of making you face your worst self. I remembered the years my father had worked to keep a creaking, leaking roof over our heads, and I couldn't even bring myself to feel grateful. If anyone had asked me who I would prefer alive at that very moment, my father or Angel - I would have picked Angel. Every time. It wasn’t even a rightful competition.
It has been a slow, slow death since then, but I think I’ve had enough of it. There are days now when I feel calmer and clearer than ever, when I remember that this is not the life she would have liked for me to have. She was never one to think about death, that girl. There was so much life in her that it diffused into me by association. I had somehow deluded myself into thinking that her memory was supposed to be a painful one. It isn’t.
The girl who died is not the girl I want to remember. Understand, then, that this incredibly drawn out foreword is not the memoir that I am trying to write. The songs are. They are not sad pieces - and that is the point.
This story is already forty years old, but my old classmates still treat me like a widower in mourning. It’s odd how many times I’ve seen people shrink away, wary of asking me how I’m coping, even when their throats are so crowded with questions that they can’t even manage a polite hello-good-bye. I wouldn’t mind answering, but I do mind all the hesitation. If you’re going to be curious, don’t be a curious coward. Sometimes I miss the reckless people that I grew up trying to avoid. Where have they all gone? Ah, yes, probably to the publishing industry.
Well, publishing industry, here’s the story that you were dying to have, sordid details and all. I hope it satisfies you. May you breathe easy and start gossiping about someone else now.
...Angel. I can already feel the inevitable storm of beginners mutilating your songs. I hope you can’t hear them, wherever you are.
There are three words I never said to you.
Rest in peace.
Author's Note: In light of the fact that some of my readers have been confused by the first person pov, I'm editing to confirm that yes, this is a fictional account. Thank you, I hope you enjoyed the story!