This piece was selected for the MAYDAY 2022 Nonfiction prize
Pythagoras said you can hear all notes in the sound of one plucked string. A single tone—the fundamental—triggers both overtones and sympathetic vibrations.
A viola d’amore has six strings played with a bow with at least six more strung below the fingerboard. A blindfolded Cupid sits at the top of the neck. The elegant carved slits in the body of the instrument that let the sound flow out represent the Flaming Swords of Islam, given by God to the cherubim who guarded Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The bow never touches the lower strings. Instead, they lie inert, their sound waves set in motion only when the bow crosses the strings above them, stirring them to vibrate in sympathy, adding a subtle layer of warmth. We barely notice it, but our bodies absorb it.
Forty years ago, I sat in the basement of an old church with a hundred other singers. It was eight o’clock at night. We came from noisy lives—jobs, children, dishes left in the sink, beds unmade—and warmed up on a single tone, sustaining it, breathing as we needed to, listening more than singing so we could tune to each other. We arrived at unison by eradicating the beating dissonance between us, giving birth to a second tone resonating above our heads, faint and high. An overtone, eerie in its elusiveness, a phantom pitch created by intersecting sound waves, disappearing and reappearing as our individual pitches wavered and returned to unity before wandering off again.
We opened our music, a requiem for the living, and sang hopeful slow-moving chords.
‘Selig sind die da Leid tragen.’ Blessed are they that carry grief.
At the break in the rehearsal, one of the basses came to my chair. He was blond and wiry, his beard too long for my taste. We’d caught each other’s eyes from across the room as we sang. He knelt at my feet and told me his name. My stomach buzzed.
Three years later, he and I bought an old house with wide-planked floors and soon after found a harpsichord at a chorus auction. We saw it sitting on the stage in the performance hall, with its classic Wedgewood blue case and cream-colored borders. It looked like a miniature piano, or a harp laid horizontal with a keyboard at the wide end and a sweeping curve toward the small end like broad shoulders tapering to a narrow waist. The woodworker in him admired the craftmanship. We raised our bid beyond our budget and set it by the window in the music room, raising the lid to reveal a hand-painted sound board— birds and butterflies flitting through a garden of chrysanthemums and daisies. Its keys plucked the strings instead of hammering them as a piano does, making its tones delicate and short-lived.
At home in the music room, he sat in the easy chair slouched nearly horizontal himself, eyes closed, as I played Bach.
I read and reread a book of instructions about how to tune it. I tapped the tuning fork on my thigh and put the stem to the small bone in front of my ear. It filled my head with a single tone. I pressed one key and tuned the two strings it plucked, listening to the faint beats between them, erasing their discord with my tiny wrench. When the overtone sailed out high above, I knew I was done.
A singer produces sound from a vibrating column of air, able to tune to others in a nano second. A plucked or hammered string issues only one fixed point of sound with no ability to adjust pitch to the others around it. A keyboard requires some purposeful mistuning, tainting the pure sound by manipulating the beats between them to reduce the discord until it is almost unnoticeable.
I struck two keys at once and counted the subtle beats that bounced between them. Time slowed as I made my way up and down the keyboard, turning the wrench to equalize the pulsing in each pair. I blocked out everything around me, trusting my ear to balance the dissonance. The harpsichord went out of tune at the slightest change in temperature or humidity, so I had a lot of practice.
A month before he died, I stepped outside the front door into the cold. So cold the snow sang out. Tiny ice crystals rubbed together beneath my boot, squeaking and crunching, filling me like the tuning fork.
I reached the end of the sidewalk and heard the front storm door slam shut. He came around the corner, shuffling toward me dressed in full battle gear against the cold, wearing a heavy army coat left over from his ROTC days. Due to his lifetime contract with every piece of clothing he owned, he wore ancient snow boots, tall and thick-soled, heavy fraying gloves, and a ragged red hat beneath his hood. Shocking, because all through the fall and into winter he seemed to lose his reason, ignoring my pleas to wear more than cotton shirts, sweatpants, and flipflops. I smiled at him, and he smiled back. His doctors said he would not feel the cold and would lose the ability to smile.
Over time, in the old house, the wood in the harpsichord shifted. The sounding board cracked and bulged upward, touching some of the strings, smothering their sound. To bring it back to a playable state, an expert would have to dismantle it and reconstruct the sound board, which would destroy the pink chrysanthemums and monarch butterflies. It became an instrument of torture for me and stood untouched for years in the music room. Who loves a broken instrument?
He grew quiet in those last months before he left me. I used to look at him and know his thoughts, but his eyes went blank sometimes. The things we felt together, a nod, a smile, a hand on my back, my hand on his arm, the rise and fall of our breath, eroded by the onslaught of Huntington’s Disease, twenty years of slow decline. With no treatment and no cure, his limbs danced and banged into my bones as he reached for me. I had to dodge his embrace and found it hard to care for his foreign body, longing for the soft one that once held me. All I care about now is the resonance between us.
Our new house was one story, sitting low in the ground to save energy. I expected him to stay there near the garage on the flat, but he followed me up around the corner. I reached up to the eaves and swept my hand through icicles, fat from the foot of snow melting from the roof. They dropped to the ground clinking like little bells. He trailed behind me teetering and staggering, eyes steely, as I made my way up the gentle slope in the backyard swinging my hands at the dangling ice. To give him time to catch up to me, I stopped and watched our resident hawk circling and screeching and stared into the woods at imaginary nuthatches.
When we left the old house and moved to this smaller one ten years ago, the harpsichord came with us. I lowered its lid, took it off its oak legs, and packed the body into its custom padded case. With no space to set it up, it stayed on its side against the wall next to the bed. The wide end sat just below the windowsill. Its curving body sloped toward the floor. The peripheral parts scattered through the house like the straw man from the Wizard of Oz—the legs upstairs in a closet, the music desk on a shelf in the bedroom, the tuning implements tossed in a basket. I couldn’t let go of any of it. Every night I peeled my clothes off and laid them on the sloping edge, haunted by my obligation to it.
I considered taking it to the dump to be rid of it but could take no action.
A year after his death, I found the courage to go into the garage and sort his things. I threw throw out ancient jugs of anti-freeze and empty bottles of motor oil. I uncovered boxes packed with fine chisels and a groove router and gave them to his closest friend. Seeing them in the hands of someone who would put them to good use allowed me to part with things that had been part of him. That surge of energy carried me into the house, to the bedroom. I grabbed the handles of the blue padded case and dragged the harpsichord away from the wall. Feet planted and bent double, I tugged and grunted, inching it along the rug as the canvas tore apart. I laid it down horizontal in the middle of the bedroom where his hospital bed once stood and, on my knees, lifted the body off the rug with one hand and pulled the cover out from under it with the other.
It stayed there on the floor for weeks until an artist friend arrived.
Together, we raised the lid. Broken strings curled. The keys laid aslant from a decade of living on their side. I’d forgotten about the hand-painted soundboard, the soul of the instrument, steamed and molded to a curve, an echo chamber that incubated overtones. Sprays of ferns sprawled across it. Butterflies flitted between flowers. All of it stained with mildew and mottled with cobwebs and dust.
“An architectural gem,” my friend said, standing next to me as we looked down at it.
We planned its transformation—a glass-covered table. There was enough space beside the bed where it had been for ten years to lay it once again on the horizontal, the small end toward the foot of the bed, its curving body expanding to the wide keyboard end as if ushering me toward my pillow.
I could keep it without the burden of tuning or playing it but sighed and said I’d have to clean it and find someone to cut the legs down to size. She said yes to the legs but no need to clean. Just leave it as it is. Perhaps she sensed my exhaustion, worried that the energy I’d expend to restore it to glory to atone for my neglect might crush me. But I couldn’t bear to be left with dust and grime, unable to see it as it once was.
Days later, my body in motion before my mind caught up, I brought the vacuum cleaner into the bedroom. My hands fumbling for the crevice tool, I knelt over it on the floor, hose in one hand, toothbrush in the other, wedging them between the wire strings which stretched and pinged but didn’t break. With the same focus I used to tune it, I swabbed the brush in tiny strokes down the length of the instrument between the rows of wire, sucked away the furry scum of dust and liberated the flowers, the birds and the fine veins of unpainted wood. I spoke to them as if they were alive. Sobs rose in my throat. I gave in to them and the heaviness inside me lifted.
A week later I returned with a damp paper towel and began scrubbing at the gray layer beneath the dust covering the sound board. Growing braver, I used more water, but the paint bled like makeup on a teary face. I could only go so deep with the cleaning, but even so, it revealed brush strokes, shading and light.
When he and I came around the last corner to the front of the house that day I knocked icicles down, he surged ahead of me, stumbling across the sloping garden making a beeline to the front door, close to collapse but refusing help. His torso swaying, he reached the front door and grabbed twice for the handle. With the door half-open, he regained his balance, turned, and looked at me, eyes dark almost angry, as if startled by clarity. Two days later I sent him to the hospital alone in an ambulance with a high fever. I could not go myself because of COVID restrictions. They phoned me at two AM. They brought his fever down but could find no cause for it. A terminal fever, they said. The next day he returned home. Two days later he sat next to me at the dining room table, faced the hospice nurse, looked her in the eye and said, “I know I’m going to die.”
Over the next three weeks he grew weaker and took to his hospital bed while I wandered between kitchen and bedroom in a daze, watching him sleep, eating lunch alone at the dining room table eye to eye with the hawk who stared at me through the window from a limb on the gum tree. When he did not wake for twenty-four hours straight, I realized I might never hear his voice again and cried until I had no breath.
I came to understand why he’d dressed so meticulously that cold day when he walked around the house with me. Why he smiled at me in the driveway. It was not the wooden imitation of a smile forced through his barely functioning neurons but one that found a direct line from his heart, one that said, “I know you.” In the surge of energy that comes to someone close to the end, he became his old self. Circumnavigating our house, thinking he would find his strength again, he was instead shocked by the effort of each step. I saw it in the hopeless look as he reached for the door. He was a vibrating column of air wavering in search of the overtone, forced to confront the fixed point of his end, knowing he could not temper the dissonance between his desire to go on and a body that could no longer support him.
The harpsichord again sits beside the bed, horizontal now on its stubby legs, the blue and pink flowers blooming on the soundboard beneath the strings. A piece of tempered glass, toughened by a blast furnace and a dousing of cold water, lays on top.
I sleep next to it, feeling the crowd pressing in around us as we fight to write our bids on a small piece of paper at the auction. He smiles at me under bright lights. We take the harpsichord home and carry it through the front door of the old house, into the music room with the yellow wallpaper, his slender arms taut and tanned as we lift it onto its pedestal.
GINNY BITTING grew up in Mystic, Connecticut and taught in local public schools. As a teenager, she hated sailing lessons. As an adult, she joined a local chorus and met a man with a boat who invited her to take the helm. They married, raised a daughter, exploring east coast waterways from Maine to the Bahamas. Naugatuck Community College published an excerpt of her memoir manuscript, Leaving the Ground, in Confluencia in the Valley. A Room of Her Own selected her poem, “About the Ocean,” for publication in the anthology Waves. Ginny is grateful for the writing groups, published authors and friends who sustain and nurture her writing life.