November entry for the Show, Don't Tell Contest
It was a plaintive tune, drawn from a well-known Classic; so very familiar, even though she couldn’t place its exact title for the moment.
Ruby had heard this piece hundreds, if not thousands, of times; performed by the simplest amateurs to the most accomplished maestros. But there was something in this particular rendition that stirred a strange passion within her that no previous interpretations had; something unwonted about its quivering slurs that made her heartbeat flare.
It wasn’t the disharmonious chords; the uneven pitches that clashed against one another instead of flowing in one accord. Yet despite the jarring mismatch of its overtones, Ruby found herself attracted to this peculiar play.
She hurried to attend the performance; her quick footfalls barely made any sound as she ran over cracked tiles.
The music guided her way through the pitch black corridor, but she skidded to a halt when she reached the source of the haunting tune.
Inside a chamber illuminated by silver moonbeams, a wild-haired ghost swayed before an ebbing grand piano, his translucent hands sweeping gracefully over the yellowed keys. He seemed oblivious to everything but his music, and Ruby hid herself in the shadows, behind a timber frame.
The solemn notes lulled her into a state of reverie; her vision blurred as she was whisked into a time long gone, calling back faded memories to the present.
Plink, plink, plink.
A three-year old Ruby banged a plastic fork against the surface of her highchair whilst she waited for Mummy and big sis to finish cooking. Her stomach was already growling, and Ruby wanted her food now. But it was only half-past-six now; dinner won’t be served until seven o’clock, and Ruby had to wait, whether she likes it or not.
Thirty minutes seemed like eternity to an impatient toddler, so she pounded her utensils even harder against anything her stubby hands could reach, hoping that the racket would make Mummy hurry up.
But then something else caught her attention; Ruby noticed how each object she thumped on produced a unique sound—sharp, flat, strong, weak—and the curious youngling began to experiment with the noise, hunger forgotten.
A tap here, three taps there, two taps elsewhere, and another three back. She kept on drumming until she discovered a rhythm, and she hummed a melody to accompany her tune; a song that nobody else had heard before.
Ruby didn’t realise that her meal was already on the table until she’s done playing, and saw the rest of her family whooping in amazement. Ruby giggled and clapped along with them, and Mummy gave her extra desserts that night.
Tears gushed freely down her cheeks, like water surging out from a broken dam.
How? she asked herself. How could she forget those precious, carefree moments, where she could just play music, and have fun composing melodies she loved to hear; those years were the best times of her life, before she became known as ‘the Venerable Virtuoso’, ‘a Modern Mozart’, and whatever grand-sounding titles her consumers had come up with, and ‘Ruby Delaere’ was no more.
The renewed longing of that dead and buried past unearthed a bitter sense of loss she never knew she’d ever felt, and a soft cry slipped out from Ruby’s lips before she even realise it was coming.
Her snivel interrupted the flowing tune, and the ghostly pianist was shaken out of his trance. Seemingly enraged by this rude awakening, the musician slammed his hands over the keys, ending his performance in a thunderous crash. He tore away from his instrument, and stormed towards the intruder.
Ruby clasped her hands over her mouth; her jellied legs strained to uproot themselves from the ground. But it was too late. The phantom had rounded her, and for the first time since she had found herself in this musty hall, Ruby felt afraid.
She shirked back in apprehension, but, to her astonishment—and relief—the spectre did nothing to harm her; he did nothing at all, in fact, and simply hovered in place. Time stood still for a while, as the two figures stared unmovingly at each other. It was the ghost who finally broke their silence with a hushed, “Ruby…?”
That this apparition knew her name added another shock upon a growing mountain of surprises, but the longer Ruby observed the translucent lines from the dead man’s face, the more she could trace something familiar out of his barely discernible features. Her eyes widened with both awe and disbelief when the recognition finally dawned, and a fresh wave of memories washed over her.
Spring had sprung, and the unfrozen beds brought forth a burst of colours. Birds flitted in the air once more, chirping new songs to greet the warming season. Jumping on board into this celebration, Ruby swayed along the rhythm, her pouted lips whistled a joyful melody.
She reveled in her tune, until the loud bang of a ruler thrashing her desk startled her back to the classroom, where she was confronted by Ms. Perrault’s scolding glare. “You may think that learning maths is subpar to your artistic sensibilities, Miss Delaere, but the others do not share that sentiment; and if you’d just upset our lesson, you are free to leave,” the teacher snapped.
A hot flush coloured Ruby’s cheeks as she stammered an apology, and trembling under the annoyance and disdain reflected on her classmates’ stares, she fled out of the room
News of Ruby’s ‘disruptive behaviour’ was reported back to her family, and Dad tackled Ruby about the matter as soon as he got home from work.
“I just don’t want you to end up like my brother, Ruby,” her father said at the end of his hour-long lecture. “Walter fancied himself as a musician, and look what he’s become now: a penniless washout who leech off other people’s money,” his voice held a measure of contempt—as it always did, whenever he talked about his brother.
Ruby regarded this warning with a scowl. Regardless of her uncle’s failure, she knew that a lot of people who actually play music as a living, so why is Dad suggesting that it’s impossible?
“You’re too idealistic,” groaned her father when he caught her expression, and slumped deeper into his couch. Then, as though struck by a bolt of inspiration, he abruptly stood up and pronounced, “I think you should try staying with your uncle for a while, Ruby. Then see if you’d still want to pursue music as a worthwhile career.”
“Uncle Walter…?” Ruby uttered faintly, then collapsed over the creaking floor.
Her uncle followed suit; lowering himself to meet Ruby’s bewildered gaze as he asked, “My dear girl. What are you doing here?” The confusion in his voice mirrored her own.
Ruby bit her lower lip as her only response, unwilling to give an answer she knew he wouldn’t appreciate.
Uncle Walter’s translucent form continued to scrutinize her, and Ruby shifted her gaze to avoid his piercing stare.
She observed her surroundings for the first time since waking up. Beneath the dim glow from the moon, she took note of the spacious alleyway, the dilapidated walls held by crumbling pillars, the antique furniture made of carved woods; Ruby realised that this place look nothing like her uncle’s place of residence. He never owned a grand piano.
Her father drove her to a small apartment building where her uncle lived, and helped carry her suitcase up the third floor, before room 313. “Alright, kiddo, this is your home for the next for the next three months. Take a good care of yourself, because your uncle can’t.” He ruffled her hair as a part of his farewell, and then disappeared down the staircase after giving her a kiss on the forehead.
Moments later, a lanky figure emerged, and Ruby almost jumped at the sight of him. Walter Delaere looked like a character straight out of a horror movie: his skin clung precariously on his bones as if it was about to peel away, and his scraggly hair was streaked with grey. The billowing fabric that hung loosely on his skeletal frame didn’t seem like it belonged to any category of worldly fashion.
Ruby gawked at her uncle in alarm, but the playful glimmer that shone from his dark eyes quickly dispelled her anxieties.
“So, Ruby, I heard Winston is trying to scare you out of doing music,” Uncle Walter began with a cracked smile, and passed Ruby a conspiratorial look as he ushered her into his flat. “But, just between you and me, I actually intend to achieve the exact opposite.”
As he spoke, Uncle Walter pointed towards a white spinet, the only piece of furniture that occupied the living room, and Ruby's eyes sparkled with glee. The small upright was a far cry from the parlour grand she’d dreamed of playing, but Ruby dove at it all the same. She had waited all her life to play a genuine musical instrument, and this moment was a glorious milestone.
“Ruby?” Uncle Walter’s voice rang out once, interrupting Ruby's nostalgia. She returned her gaze towards his faded countenance, and suspected that it was starting to twist in impatience.
She knew her uncle never liked silence, but she was still disinclined to admit the deed that had led her to this place. Instead, she asked back, “What is this place, uncle?”
Abruptly, Uncle Walter withdrew from his niece, and brandished an arm in a circling motion. “This,” he declared in a reverent gesture, “is our ancestral home. Your grandpa moved us out about thirty years ago... said this place was too much of an upkeep.”
His head turned to admire the sombre portrait of a full moon night framed in the intricate grills of the French window; his prosodic speech lingered on, “We used have this saying… ‘The branch never leaves the root, when harvest comes, the earth shall eat its fruits’; apparently, this house wasn’t meant to serve our family as a place of living, but as a resting place for its dead. None of us ever believed that saying. But now I see that story’s actually true.”
Her uncle whirled around to face her, his charcoal eyes ablaze with emotion.
“What happened, Ruby? What brought you here?” he demanded harshly. He might have seized her shoulders and shook them, but his hands phased through her semi-solid form. “Tell me you didn’t give up; tell me you didn’t abandon your dreams—our legacy.”
Ruby gaped at this sudden burst of anger. She shook her head feebly, even though she was painfully aware at how unconvincing this lie was.
“You’re not fully dead yet, it seems. You can still make it. So promise me, that you’ll live on,” her uncle’s command was definite. “Live on, live on…” he repeated those words, his voice gradually growing softer, more distant, until they disappeared altogether, along with the dilapidated room and the old grand piano.
“Miss Delaere, if you could…”
Ruby slammed the door of her hotel suite before her agent could finish his sentence, and threw herself onto the queen-sized bed. She doesn’t want to hear any more complaints about her most recent performance—that it was too short, too long, too loud, too mellow, too normal, too bizarre. Everyone was wrong, everyone was right; and she’s like a pitiful victim caught in a vicious crossfire.
She rattled at her bed frame in an attempt to drown out the mocking voices, but it only made things worse; already she could hear even more disapproving remarks being leveled against the cacophony she was making, how unbefitting it was of a great musician such as Ruby Delaere.
In silent fury, she kicked at the blankets; it descended on the dresser with a dull thud, and a heavy silence ensued.
Seconds tick by, turning to minutes, and almost creeping into an hour, before Ruby finally calmed down.
With still-laboured breathing, she stepped out of bed to retrieve her sheets, and an envelope fluttered down when she pulled the covers. It was addressed to her, sent from her home address. Wondering why her family hadn’t called instead, Ruby pulled out the letter from its package and skimmed through its contents.
As she did so, her hands started to shake, and the paper slid from her grasp.
In his note, Dad had told her that his brother—Uncle Walter—had passed away. He died of pneumonia two days ago, when Ruby was about to start her Venice tour, and her family didn’t want to break the gig with such bad news.
Ruby shook her head incredulously, as she came to the painful realisation that she had been eroded, consumed by the fickle demands of the faceless masses. Her entire being was meant to entertain that ungrateful, unpleasable crowd, and nothing else.
Gazing at the clear blue skies out the window, Ruby wondered if her songs could ever reach those lofty heights, as she had once promised to Uncle Walter, when the listeners kept on dragging her down.
But even if she managed rise up against the public currents, her uncle would never know. He’s gone; he’d never hear her next performance.
How she hated what her life's become; how she wanted it all to end.
Her thoughts in disarray, Ruby climbed over the balcony. She’d make a wager, here and now; she’d either soar and reach the skies, or fall into the grave.
Ruby spread out her arms like they were wings, and jumped.
The burst of sunlight hit Ruby’s fluttering eyes, rousing her from a week-long slumber. She let out pained whimper as her disused muscles protested against her movements. She struggled to get up, and managed to prop herself to a sitting position through sheer effort of will.
Her eyes slid down at her bandaged arms. Her head was similarly wrapped in gauze
Then she stared, slackjawed, at the four white slates that surrounded her, wondering if her room had always been so bare and colourless. She's been gone for far too long to say for certain, if she was actually at home.
How…? Where…? Ruby tried to ask the white-clad woman who was bustling around the place, but she hurried out with a loud gasp before Ruby could voice her questions.
The lady returned shortly afterwards, this time, she was accompanied by three others. Mum immediately latched onto her with hugs and kisses, while Dad stood by her side, a forlorn expression on his face. Big sis was saying something about being stupid and causing trouble for everyone, but her wet eyes washed away any trace of malice her words might otherwise have carried.
Ruby barely registered their uproarious greetings; she stared ahead vacantly, where a lanky figure with tattered robes stood.
Don't give up, the man’s eyes seem to say. Don't give up over the nameless flocks who only seek to eat you up. Play for the ones who would regard you as the best version yourself, even as you falter. Play for them, Ruby, and you will soar.
Ruby’s lips twitched into a thin smile, as she gazed fondly at the fading apparition. She nodded. I will.