Crescendo at the End of the World
I didn’t know when her next arrival would be, but I knew I had to try before she returned. No matter how much it strained my throat, no matter how much pangs of pain rang like rain through my voice, I had to try.
Without accompaniment, I drew in as much air I could, and attempted to form discernable notes. However, nothing of the sort resounded. I tried again, producing no different results. The instruments on the wall all gleaned in the shine of the city through the glass windows, an emptiness given color. Staring at them, I wondered if an alternative would be suitable to singing, if she could achieve her goals without needing her voice.
These thoughts didn’t help any of our cases, and I dismissed them before they could conquer me.
I thought to take it slower, and so I took in a short breath, and hummed a single tone. I aimed for audibility. If I could sustain a sound, I could train it and use the knowledge in my mind to hone posture and air-intake.
Imagining where I wanted to be, where the sound needed to be, I exhaled, a small hum, like the start of a gust through a forest. But the world around me was no longer constrained to an endless field. That small gust, travelling through trees, whistling in the air, would find its way to civilization, through the cracks of the road, to the city, where it would have to fight. Where, in the dead of night, or the solace of morning, it could exist in full, and it would linger there, until there was no more air remaining.
For a first sound, for being able to produce even a single note for such a period, it was progress. I tried again, starting from the beginning, and progressing to where I was. The more I could envision the sound of my voice travelling across the world outside, the easier it became to produce those sounds.
Singular notes then turned to a short scale, and singing at a comfortable volume became possible. Following along on the piano wasn’t too hard as long as I focused, and the short tune of the stars wasn’t so distant.
What stopped me from practicing wasn’t exhaustion or pain, but the shifting of the outside world. From the empty city that stared back in its apartments and streetlights, the world shifted, the apartments cascading in cracks, and in its place were trees. Except, they weren’t large or blossomed as freely as the forests in my mind, and the buildings were blown by the wind into the background, a still fixture; the world became a park. A large stony fountain laid in the middle, nearly obstructed by the door, and on the other side were beds of flowers and a lone bench.
Trying to attribute the park to any place in the actual world led to blanks, it didn’t exist. Perhaps to increase a sense of reality, a butterfly flew across, its wings gold and bright. It was the first time I’d seen any sort of life in that outside world, and I wasn’t even sure if it was real. I couldn’t be sure that anything in this room had any such intention.
I watched as the butterfly disappeared, and I listened, trying to see if the fountain in the distance could emit noise, if any loose life would plop on its surface and cause an ebb.
The only noise was the door, its cracks, as usual upon her arrival, starting to heal, and fill itself with wooden puss. The light that emerged molded with the slight glint of the park, coming together, as if both worlds were meant to be one.
What I didn’t expect was a lack of visitor. The door had opened, but no one had arrived, and it remained like that for a while, its light entering into the room, simmering silence. I stepped away from the piano, looking into the entrance, into the room on the other side.
It was the room she came from, piles of astronomical equipment atop a reflective floor adorned by a glass dome. It was night time; dozens of stars in the distance pierced the atmosphere, the room filled with tiny crystals.
I could have entered, I could have left the room. I could have found my way into the world I only grasped in my mind. Those thoughts ran through me as I stared at the open pathway, but a myriad of questions held me back, and I stood, unable to move.
To tide my time, I went back to the piano, and decided to complete the song in a single breath, some part of me mending together a scenario where she would arrive by the end, as if called by some synchronicity of the universe, as if this was all preordained.
But it didn’t matter, it didn’t really matter what the outcome would be. She hadn’t arrived, and I wanted to practice, and that’s all that mattered to me.
So I played.
My voice was cooperating, though words couldn’t form, my hums sufficed.
I brought my imagination away from the room.
Instead, as I played, I was at the top of a building, the tallest building possible for a city, the roof chilled in washes of nighttime air. The stars, at a reach, came upon my palm, but if I closed them, nothing would subsist, and they would all find themselves falling in the gaps of my fingers, dripping through, as if they were never reachable at all. But I kept reaching. I kept reaching, trying as I might, to find them near me, as they shone celestial giants in the sky. It was all I could ever hope. It was all, by the constraints of the earth, by the constraints of my body, by the constraints of humans, that it would ever be, and yet those stars, so distant, were never so far at all.
When I finished playing, I looked up.
Empty, no one had arrived.
I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate, or if what I was doing was anywhere near what laughter should have been, and though a part of me was surprised at how it escaped me, I let it exist. I laughed, and I looked back at the keys, playing it all again, until I was tired, until I closed my eyes, wondering when she might come next.
“Well? I didn’t think you were so contained in this room that I would find you sleeping here.”
When I opened my eyes, she was there.
The door was closed, and I wasn’t sure if it had ever actually been open, if any of it had been real, but the sensation of the keys on my hands, of my voice being used, was undeniably present.
I smiled, pressing a chord to indicate I was ready.
She sang a note back, to tell me she was too.
She stopped at first when I joined her singing, my hums nearly eclipsing her voice, but I lowered it just enough to not overtake her. The initial shock of hearing both our voices meld didn’t last long, and she continued till the last word, every piano note accompanied sustained at a lower volume, to make way for us.
She wanted to laugh after our first completed session, but I cut her off by playing again, and without words, she understood.
The second time, her voice had found balance among mine, and I was able to accompany us through the soft melody of the lullaby. She strayed off pitch plenty of times, but bringing it home and staying on course was equally as frequent. Pitches raised and lowered like the swell of stars through night, and we always managed to end. She never stopped once.
Again. I played, and she followed, and sometimes I lagged behind to let her lead, and she wouldn’t notice, and we would finish off beat, somewhere far yet somehow close. This would cause her to lead the next ensemble, and she would start before I could even play a single note, but I would find my way back to her, and even if her voice didn’t match my playing, it was an attempt all her own.
Once I felt we had broken into a rhythm, I began to change the way I played, adding dynamics to my piano, sections of pianissimo followed by gradual crescendos ending in trills, and complex scales with sharps and slurs, and I overpowered the performance with a variation of the song, but I hummed the same lyrics, I hummed all the same, and I started again, and she followed. I began to let my mind slip, and I tried to bring her to a quiet balcony view, where the night sky surrounded us, where she wouldn’t have to reach for any of them, as they were already a galaxy away, and I sustained those long scales to tell her that she didn’t have to try endlessly reaching for something she may not want, or reaching for something only at the behest of others. I kept my humming consistent, telling her that it was okay to just be where she was, and I let her voice overpower mines as we continued, and when we finished, day had overridden night.
Silence propagated in our room, and when our eyes locked, she seemed ready to talk.
When she did, she didn’t do so expecting to reveal everything and I never expected as much. When she brought her hands to her throat, to the music we made, to the sounds we carved together, she had a gentle look. From where she stood, with the park behind her, it seemed any breeze would have lifted her, wrapped itself around her, and carried her elsewhere. But from where she stood, she was there with me, and my hands were soft against the piano keys.
“It’s, you know? Not anything too extravagant. It’s really dumb, I know.” She paused, clearing her throat, keeping her breaths inside of her, before letting them out. When she looked at me again, she lifted her hand to her hairpin, clipping it off, letting loose strands fall near her eyes. She turned towards the glass window, the outside world greeting her back, whatever it may have looked to her.
“I’m basically the president of the astronomy club at my school. One of the requirements of being able to keep that room was to have it open.” She took a few steps across, admiring whatever it was she could see. “The public could come at set times to use the equipment, which, in my case, is often children getting a relatively free pass at being able to use telescopes without the hassle of having to travel. It’s not something I mind, and the club members, they don’t mind either.” She stopped, stretching towards the window, star between her fingers, but no matter how much she reached, she would never touch the surface. The room was repelling her again, but she didn’t notice, and she kept trying, eventually stopping, and letting her star shine in the light. At least, from where I was, it shone.
“Recently, the kids who have been coming aren’t really here for the stars. Their parents let them come over during the afternoon whenever they have to work late or whenever they felt like sneaking off to someplace else.” Twisting the pin between her fingers, she let it rest on top of her hand, balancing it with a slight tilt in her body.
“It’s not too much trouble having them over, but it’s not really a daycare.” She smiled to herself. “But, it’s not like we can refuse them either, and, the university doesn’t care as long as we’re not breaking or endangering anything or anyone on campus ground.”
She paused, cupping the pin in her palms, and turned towards me, the park, from my view, gently laced over her body.
“Some of them are rowdy, some far too much for their own good. Some of the club members actually do work there as well, studying the stars, mapping out the sky, trying to find any undocumented objects. You can imagine how disruptive the little ones are, but, they’re not so bad.”
Holding the pin in the air, she twirled it, letting it twinkle in the light.
“One of them gave me this. As a gift, for always taking care of them, and, it was the first real gift I’ve ever gotten, not an obligation for an occasion. Just, appreciation, just, out of whim.”
She placed it back on her head, letting it contain the loose strands of hair that threatened a place on her face.
“That same kid, she’s been coming over more and more, telling me that our observatory was the only place she felt safe. Of course, I figured she was exaggerating, not a place like that, that was nowhere to be home. But she always stayed till the very end of public hours.”
When she turned to me, she hummed a few notes of the lullaby, not intending to complete a measure, but just to have sound in the air.
“She would always get drowsy, being the last one around, and lately, she’s asked if I could sing something to help her sleep. And you already know the rest.”
She smiled lightly, holding her fingers across her pin, adjusting it, holding onto the star that made its way to her.
“It’s, you know? Something that, I would have wanted, if, if I had someone like that growing up, you know? I’m not sure if that makes sense, but, I just wanted to do something for someone like her. Someone who was just trying her best, who had found a place where she could try her best.”
We never practiced for the rest of the day. Instead, I listened as she talked, about meaningless things, about happy things, about things she didn’t know about, wondering what they were, about how many foreign objects were in the sky, about what they looked like, about how they shined, about where she fit in this universe.