This story is by John Thayer and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
With the lights dim at the end of the day, he sits at the piano. And what a dreadful day it has been! The one thing this man could never have expected has happened, and now he must deal with it. “She is gone,” he whispers. But he cannot think about that right now without slipping into total madness.
So, he begins playing the first movement of one of his favorite sonatas. It starts with a slow pulse—like a muted drum or a storm faraway—soothing his mind and drawing his thoughts away from the day’s events to a place where he sees warm light on a lake in the mountains. The beat of the song gets stronger. It is not faster but gains intensity. The distant storm grows slowly as the picture in the pianist’s mind turns from soft light to bright flashes of lightning and low, rhythmic peals of thunder.
At the start of the day, he could not expect that his world would rock. He couldn’t know that an accident would take his love and leave him alone without any good-byes. Anguish fights for his attention in this storm. Every emphasized note of the right hand becomes a blast of light against the serene landscape. The swelling and fading of strength in his left brings the thunder closer, and the player battles to maintain his calm. He stoops over the keys as if in prayer, allowing one thought to linger, echoing the slow cadence. His one thought— “She is gone.”
The performer’s conscious mind fights for sanity and guides his hands to produce the notes. In this struggle against madness, the music enters not only through his ears, but also his hands and his body. The act of making the motions with rhythm and strength in balance brings serenity. It is the vibrations of the piano that he feels in his fingers and the low rumble of the bass notes in his chest that helps him center. Without even knowing it he has matched his breathing to the tempo of the song.
And the storm recedes…for a moment, anyway.
The first movement ends, and the player sits in total silence. After a few moments, he begins the second. This one is immediately brighter and lighter on the heart. It was always one of her favorites, and he remembers her dancing around the house as he would play. He joins the dance, sitting up and rocking left and right with her spirit. Thoughts of the crash that took her have almost disappeared.
The gentle light on the mountains becomes a warm glow like the rose-colored light of a desert sunset shining on the mountain tops to the east. The musician hears the memory of her laugh in these notes written so long ago. For now, the storm clouds of the first movement have broken and allowed the last light of the day to show its glory in broad beams. The sounds from the piano blend with the picture in his mind to produce motion in the trees, movement in the clouds, and peace in his soul.
The simplicity of the music in the second movement is a welcomed ruse. He plays with the repetitions by changing the rhythm ever so slightly. The tight dance in the opening is now a loose, laughing echo with its unique pulse.
But now the bright shafts of the setting sun diminish and become irregular; once warm, they are now cool. The vision of his love dancing is dim, and the lightness in his heart is slipping. He wants to hang on to it for just a bit longer, but the notes on the page are relentless. As his thoughts threaten to consume his own mind, his head and shoulders come low again in sadness, knowing where the music will lead.
This song was written over two hundred years ago, and the pianist is not going to second guess the course that was set by the master. He knew at the beginning of this second movement that the relief he felt would be exquisite but fleeting. And though he has played this tune more times than he can count, the storm blots out the setting sun, and the light fades before he knows it. Chaos slowly builds high in the clouds.
“She is still gone,” even less than a whisper.
Again, there is silence. A few seconds pass, and the performer knows what is coming next, so he waits for one second more, maybe two. If there were an audience, they might start to wonder if he is going to proceed. But in his own mind there is no doubt. He knows he will continue; he knows he must continue. He will not get to the end and win his sanity unless he can muster the strength for the last movement and face the tragedy head-on. And so, he breathes deeply and begins.
He even shocks himself with the initial frenzy of this movement. The quick pace and the quiet rise of the notes followed by a loud crash in a minor chord wipe out the last remnants of peace and serenity from moments ago. Any memory of the soft light of sunset vanishes with the harsh rebirth of the storm. Flashes of lightning, thunderclaps, and the thoughts of today’s hard news are threatening to overcome his defense. Still, he knows that eventually he must contend with life in the real world and that when he does, he will find the way through. To refuse the struggle would be to welcome insanity.
The initial seconds of the third movement are filled with stops and starts, shaking and tormenting the performer until he finds the main pulse. Much quicker now. As he begins to sweat under the strain, he sees the landscape and the lake embroiled in the storm. His breathing is still locked to the timing of the music, and it is now as if he is in a real fight.
Though he tries to remain in the music and in the scene that it has produced, his mind and his own thoughts are his opponents. His mind is the storm itself with the surging wind. His thoughts rail against his senses as the rain pelts the surface of the lake and the lighting singes the landscape. The relentless tempo of this last movement marches toward its certain end without interruption. “She is gone,” his mind repeats, “but even she didn’t know it was coming.” And this is true. Someone ran the light at a blind intersection, and in an instant, with the power of the brightest lightning bolt, she was taken.
The storm runs its course as the power in the song rises and falls with the aftermath of the collision—learning of her death from the police—his crying out for her—the initial shock giving way to stupor. In his mind, the performer can see the havoc on the landscape beginning to ease. In his heart and soul, the man can see his wife above the clouds moving gently in one last dance…the goodbye she didn’t get to say.
And even though the notes are set, and the direction is already known, he keeps some measure of control. He finds the moment he has been waiting for and can slow the pace for a minute. His breathing slows, and he is standing in a gentle rain with no wind. The memory of his love washes over him. The night is now dark, and the lake in the mountains is calm. Shimmering, silver light peeks through the clouds that have spent their energy.
The thoughts of the day are far from his conscious mind, and he feels the beginning sensations of true relief. But this movement has one more flash of light in store, and his aching hands begin the last grand swell to strike the closing chords with all the strength they have left. This final blast is no longer the threatening storm, but it is his own victory over madness.
His posture is now strong and upright. With a deep breath, he slowly takes his hands from the keys, lifts his foot from the pedal, and lets the echo of that last chord ring in his mind. He has fought his way through the tempest and found peace—wrestled insanity and found solid ground. If he could remain right here, he might be happy, but he knows better.
Life can deal heavy blows, and he will deal with his terrible loss, but not right now. For tonight he will sink into a deep sleep where he will dance with his wife one more time as the sounds and sensations of the music and the storm roll over him.
He will hold onto the vision of her high above him and will return there every time he plays this sonata. And when he does that, he knows he will find his happily-ever-after once again.
For a moment, anyway.