Fifteen Years Ago
I caressed the faded ivory keys of the Cristofori pianoforte, hesitant, hopeful, like approaching a new lover. This was one of the first instruments to be called a piano, forte or otherwise. One of five left built by the noted instrument maker. It dated to 1610 and was the oldest instrument in the collection of the St. George Conservatory of Music.
The ivory warmed to my touch, almost begging me to press the keys, to allow me to coax music from them.
My heart beat faster in anticipation. I wasn’t supposed to be here, in the darkened concert venue lit by a single spotlight–an intimate space that used to be a chapel attached to a castle. Remnants of the castle remained, and the chapel was still attached, though the connecting door that had been sealed ages ago.
Play me. A masculine voice echoed in my mind.
Let me become your music.
“Is anyone there?” I stood up from the narrow bench in front of the keyboard.
I heard a deep sigh in the back of my head. My eyes opened wide. “No. It can’t be. There’s no such thing as ghosts.” I backed toward the arched double doors that led to the forecourt of St. George Manor. “I refuse to believe the tales of haunting.”
Don’t leave. I need you. I need your music to complete me.
“No, no, no.” I shook my head in denial as I continued putting distance between me and the pianoforte. Students at this special conservatory whispered tales. Faculty denied the stories. Servants warned newcomers out loud. The administrators scoffed.
Gulp. The voice knew my name. Atavistic chills ran up and down my spine and extended into my hands.
You are the only one worthy to play me. None of the others competing in this gathering deserve me. I deserve your genius. I need your music to fulfill my destiny.
The words and the tone seduced me to linger and consider.
I can ensure that you will conquer the prejudice of the judges in this most glorious musical competition.
Somewhere in the acoustically perfect chapel I heard a sharp intake of breath. Mine?
I didn’t want to think about the possibility of someone official catching me playing this precious antique instrument.
“I’m already the odds-on favorite. I don’t need your guarantees.” Nineteen years old and I’d already won three international competitions and recorded three albums, as well as guested with world-renowned orchestras twelve times. I had multiple degrees from well-respected conservatories. None of the other eleven competitors had my credentials, even those older musicians in their last year of eligibility for the St. George at the age of twenty-four.
But you are young. Too young, say some of the judges. They think they should award the trophy, the recording contracts, and the cash, to someone who can’t compete again in three years. They say you still have time.
“But I’m the best of the lot of them.”
You know that. I know that. Now prove it. Play me. Play the Bach cantata that sounds limp on any other instrument.
“The cantata. The first cantata.”
The master composed it for an instrument like me. It needs me to make it the best of all music. You need me to make the most of your genius.
“No one plays the Cristofori. It’s forbidden. You are too fragile…” I took one slow step back the way I’d come.
I can be fragile under ham-fisted amateurs. You are no amateur. You know how to caress a keyboard into the finest performance.
“I… can’t.” But I took three more steps toward the circle of light shining on the Cristofori.
“I… want to.”
You need to.
I sat and stretched my fingers, clenching them again to complete the exercise, but also to give me a few more seconds to reconsider.
Please begin. Do not prolong the anticipation.
The voice sounded excited, almost as if he had grown beyond foreplay and needed consummation.
I spread my fingers to the spacing of the first chord. Waited, heard the notes in my head, tasted the music, smelled the antiquity, and dropped my hands, caressing the notes into fluidity. My heart leapt with joy. I continued, grabbing whole phrases out of the air and bringing them to life.
The voice of the haunted pianoforte hummed along with me. Audibly. I heard his voice with my ears as well as my mind.
The realization that I’d been communing with a ghost turned my left forefinger numb.
I pushed my fingers to find the original chord. I stumbled and struck the accidental sharp I had practiced and thought a better fit. One lousy note difference.
The keyboard cover slammed down.
Pain exploded from every joint and bone in my hands.
I screamed as I jerked away from the keyboard. I couldn’t move. The lid imprisoned me.
Darkness swirled and claimed my senses. In the distance, my screams faded to whimpers.