This story is by Kerr Pelto and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The lights dimmed. Spotlights hit the stage. The maestro raised his arms to the orchestra and quieted the noise. Turning to the audience, he smiled and introduced the concert pianist.
Constantine entered stage right, approached the conductor, and shook his hand. He shook hands with the concertmaster, walked over to the Bösendorfer grand piano, and bowed to the applause. Flipping his tuxedo tails behind the bench, he sat, hovered his hands above the keys, and nodded at the maestro. Silence ensued.
Constantine commenced the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Opus 18. Barely touching the keys, he began softly, then crescendoed into rapid oscillating arpeggios between both hands. The violins joined in, sustaining the melody.
All ten fingers were in constant motion, not missing a note, a beat, or an intonation. Constantine’s emotions permeated the air as he brought the piece to life. His concentration was palpable. His body swayed with passion as the music escalated in intensity.
He was in symbiosis with the keys, the melody, the emotions, and the orchestra. Yet all blurred as he entered into an altered state of consciousness. He was in love, mesmerized with the Opus as if it were his mistress. He stroked the keys, caressing them softly, then more ardently, always making sure she felt his passion as he gave her what she wanted.
From time to time, he awakened from his reverie to notice the audience sitting in rapt attention, enthralled with every note he played. Quickly, he’d return to his compulsion, unable to stop the flow of the music. He played with abandon, drawing out of his mistress the emotions she wanted to share with him. Her presence lingered over the piano as a mist, her desires matching his.
At the end of the Moderato movement, the applause was deafening.
After a short pause, the maestro lifted his baton, and the orchestra began the Adagio Sostenuto. The strings danced around each other as Constantine placed his hands on the keys, closed his eyes, and joined the ensemble. The melancholy of the concerto brought tears to the eyes of those who resonated with the music. It was so moving, so beautiful.
Constantine hunched over the keys, then leaned back as the notes moved him. His mistress beckoned him not to stop. She wanted all he could give, and he was powerless against her urgings. He succumbed and became one with her, losing himself in the process. He was as one possessed, the music taking control.
The maestro manipulated the orchestra as a puppeteer, slowing the pace or speeding it up with the flick of his wrists.
Now and then, Constantine looked up to see the conductor, and their shared thoughts said it all. It was beautiful. It was perfect. The universe revolved around the Opus and its execution.
Time stood still. And yet, it moved on.
As Constantine continued his love affair with the Opus, caressing the keys, his heart skipped a beat. Something was wrong. The violins were dissonant. They had morphed into B-flat. They were horridly off. How could he play in C when they were in B-flat? Maestro had a look of panic on his face, or was it pity? Constantine’s gaze shifted toward the audience. They were sitting in fear, mouths agape, heads shaking in disbelief.
Why were the oboes playing? Notes were scrambling in Constantine’s head. He should be playing. Why wasn’t he playing? Looking down at the keyboard, he was confused and repulsed. Blood was dripping from the keys. A wave of nausea wafted over him. His head swam. His body was as cold as ice. He raised his hands to his face. They were out of focus as if disembodied, oozing with blood. How was this possible?
Amid this terror, he looked up to see a vision of his mistress, an apparition of the Opus. She was lovelier than he could have imagined. Her long, flaxen hair shimmered in waves about her bare shoulders, and her translucent skin glowed. She reached out to him, her ice-blue eyes imploring him to continue while knowing he could not. Tears ran down her face in silent recognition that her paragon would be forever incapable of bringing her to life again.
She closed her eyes and lowered her head. At the very moment he knew she was saying goodbye, he woke up.
Constantine emerged from a dense fog. His dreamlike reality had screeched to an abrupt halt. Instead of the sounds of the symphony, he heard strange beeping noises from instruments monitoring his vitals. He slowly opened his eyes to a sterile, white room. Constantine realized he was waking up from one nightmare, only to be entering another.
Maestro was there, obviously pleased at seeing Constantine awake, yet there was something odd about the conductor’s expression. Christine, the concertmaster, sat next to the maestro. Her eyes were puffy and red. Both were talking, but Constantine heard nothing.
The music in his head was chaotic and all out of sync. Constantine shook his head to disengage the nightmare. He looked at Christine. She was babbling incoherently, sobbing, and kept repeating she was so sorry.
Why was she so sorry?
A doctor entered the room and stood next to his patient, checking his chart.
Constantine’s tortured face beseeched an explanation from the doctor.
In a soft voice and with great compassion, the doctor told Constantine he had been in the hospital for three days. On the way to his concert, his car had been hit head-on. The airbag had not deployed. The doctor explained that instead of grasping the dash to prevent being hurled out of the vehicle, he’d grabbed the broken glass of the windshield. Looking at the wreckage, it was a miracle he was alive.
Constantine didn’t feel very alive. He was groggy and disoriented. Raising his hands to brush his hair out of his face, he saw the bandages. What was wrong with his hands?
The doctor explained how he’d done all he could to try to save the fingers, but they were too mangled.
Fingers? Fingers! Plural?
Christine could not look at him. Maestro dropped his head. A shadow fell over Constantine, and darkness enveloped him.
In a flat voice devoid of life, Constantine asked, Which fingers?
The doctor explained he was now missing the two middle fingers of his right hand and the ring finger on his left.
The air was sucked out of the room. Constantine couldn’t breathe. A cacophony of sounds raged in his head. The concerto raced throughout his body in loud disharmony. The Opus was all wrong.
He rationalized he must still be dreaming. He had to be. How could he live without his hands? Music was his life. From his first breath in the morning, it filled every waking hour. With the awareness of the truth gaining hold of his mind, all the life in his body ebbed out. He became a shadow of himself, diaphanous, and on the verge of disappearing.
Christine tried to encourage him and give him hope, saying at least he was still alive.
What was she saying? He couldn’t hear her. The roar in his head blocked out all sound. Constantine felt the width of his life squeeze down to a crushing, claustrophobic nothingness.
The maestro looked up to see Constantine’s face transform from fear to recognition to an awful blank stare.
Words kept scrolling through Constantine’s tortured, scrambled mind.
Rachmaninoff. The Opus. The Opus. The Opus!
Constantine wailed in agony. He was nothing without his hands. The only life he ever knew was over. His grief was tangible.
The maestro said not to worry; he’d find someone else to finish the concert tour.
What? Someone else?
Constantine couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He snapped. He threw his head back onto the pillows as the dregs of his tears morphed into despondency. His whole body shook. His mutilated hands lay dormant by his sides. Nothing made sense. His mind was unraveling.
A vision of his mistress came into view. Was she now repelled by him? Please, not her! He had to bring her back to life. He had to play, but could he? Constantine hovered his hands above the sheets. Lowering them, he began tapping his bandaged fingers furiously on his lap.
Nothing worked. All of the rage and hurt and disbelief hit him head-on. Insanity knocked at the door, and he let her in. Maybe he could play for her. He laughed hysterically and began singing in a weird, high, childlike voice, “I could play Chopsticks with two fingers! Yes, that’s what I can do! I can play Chopsticks!”
The maestro and Christine exchanged pained glances with the doctor.
A nurse was called in to administer morphine to lessen the pain. At least his body could be eased, if not his mind.
As Constantine drifted into oblivion, he relinquished the Opus, welcomed Insanity, and beckoned Death.
The lights dimmed.