Miss Violet’s Piano — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman, Review.org Contributor

 illustration by Avi Katz

drawing by Avi Katz</FONT SIZE>

“It’s the piano.” Karin shivered. The music had woken her from an unremembered nightmare. “Someone is playing the piano.”

Or one-eyed her from under his pillow. His muffled voice sounded like it was reaching her from a cave below the floor.

“Call the police.”

My piano,” Karin said. “Someone is playing my piano.” She raised herself on her elbows, felt a creak in her lower back, and looked down on her research assistant.

Or turned over on his side so that he could use both eyes. “That’s impossible. There are two of us in the apartment. Of the two of us, only you know how to play the piano. And you are here. Ergo, no one is playing the piano.”

An arpeggio sounded in the treble, and was then taken up by the bass.

“That is,” Or suggested, “unless a burglar, about to climb the basement window with his loot, was seized by an irresistible desire to play … what is he playing?”

“Schumann. What do you care?” Karin snapped. Her cell phone vibrated. “Aren’t you going to do something?” She glared at him.

“It’s your piano,” Or said defensively, but he sat up and rubbed his eyes.

“You have scratch marks on your back,” she noticed as the phone vibrated again. She reached out for it, glancing first at her nails.

Or turned and looked at her. His black hair hung down below his shoulders and his chest was smooth. She swiped the green icon as he pulled on a pair of paisley boxers. Chords were jumping and the left hand seemed slightly out of synch with the right.

“We’re going to check on it right now,” she said into the phone, and then held it away from her as Mrs. Levi, the downstairs neighbor, had a fit.

“Maybe you should take a weapon,” Karin said nervously as Or shuffled to the door.

She pulled her knees up to her breasts and waited. The music had gotten quieter, not that it would make any difference to Mrs. Levi. Then it frantically crescendoed. She wouldn’t be able to fall asleep afterward. Maybe she shouldn’t even try, she considered. There were Roger’s comments on her article that she had to go over. They’d arrived from California just as she was shutting down the computer but she was anxious to see what he thought and how much work she would have to do in response to his critique. Crystal-clear chords and unexpected dissonances sounded just as Or returned. He stood in the doorway staring at her. He always did that and it bothered her.

“The piano,” she said. “It’s still playing.”

“It is not,” Or said firmly.

“Stop acting like a four-year-old boy,” she snapped. “Do you think I’m deaf?”

He started to climb into bed.

“Or!” she reprimanded him.

He sighed. “Come,” he said, extending his hand toward her.

She eyed him suspiciously. She grabbed her phone, pulled on her white robe, and followed Or out.

The piano sounded clearly, alternating two themes, as they walked down the corridor from the bedroom. As they descended the narrow stairway that led to the music room it was absolutely obvious that the music was coming from the old Steinway that had come with the house. The door was slightly ajar. Or pushed it open and beckoned her in.

Silence. The room was still. The music had vanished. The lid was closed over the keys. Leaf-broken light from a nearly full moon filtered in through the high window that opened out onto the tiny, leafy Talbiya garden.

She felt for Or’s hand in the dark.

“That’s not all,” he whispered. “Look at this.”

He pulled her out of the room and music again sounded, funny monkey-like rhythms and odd offbeat chords. He pulled her back in and the piano fell silent once again.

“Pretty weird,” he whispered. It sounded like he was enjoying himself.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“Now get this,” he said, pulling her out. The music resumed. They stood in the corridor and he pulled the door slightly open. “Just look in, but don’t step across the doorway.”

Karin peeked into a drawing room with a well-polished sideboard bearing decanters and goblets. A dozen portly men in suits, many with moustaches, were seated in red plush chairs before a grand piano being played by a dark young woman. Something sparkled on her neck. Her eyes were fixed on the keys that her hands danced over, as if the keys were pulling her fingers down and catapulting them to their next destination. The phone vibrated in Karin’s pocket and the ringtone sounded.

“Oh, so that’s where it comes from,” Or whispered.

Karin unpeeked and looked at him. He motioned her to repeek.

The woman face was now lined and her lips pursed. She was perhaps a decade older, dressed in a white blouse and dark skirt. The room seemed somewhat larger, perhaps because it was so sparsely furnished and its white walls were almost bare. Men in white shirts and khaki pants and women were dressed much like the performer fanned themselves with paper programs. Still she saw only the keys.

Karin reached out toward the woman at the piano and stepped into the room. The music stopped, the people all disappeared, and moon rays again searched their way through the window. She put her hands on her face, turned toward Or. He lifted her pinching fingers from her cheeks.

She grabbed his hand and began pulling him toward the stairs. “Let’s get back to bed so that I can wake up normally. I have a ton of work to do in the morning. I have to finish my article and send it out. The deadline is Friday.”

He resisted. “This is kind of cool,” he said.

He was pulling the door open again. She reluctantly followed his gaze.

The same woman sat at the piano, but now there was a girl sitting next to her intently watching the performer’s fingers fly. The bench had been reupholstered and a small writing desk stood behind the piano. A brown teddy bear lay on top of a folding bed lodged between the desk and the wall.

Karin stepped into the room. The music stopped and the moonlight returned. A drumroll sounded at the door.

“I’ll get it,” Or mumbled.

Karin walked slowly around the piano. Now that her own children were grown she didn’t even need to put guests here anymore. All she did was play here, nearly every day, for a half hour, or hour, or until Mrs. Levi called.

Or returned with the red-faced, house-coated matron. Mrs. Levi glared at Karin, glared at Or, looked back and forth between them, and then fixed her gaze on the piano.

“I know the sound,” she declared. “It’s ruining my life for the last 60 years.”

Karin recalled the generous offers her parents had made to buy out Mrs. Levi’s floor, which would have given them the entire Arab villa and its yard. But no offer was ever good enough for the Levis.

Mrs. Levi reached over and sounded a black key. “You know what is strange?” she asked. “It didn’t sound like you. In sixty years you learn the neighbors’ piano playing just like you learn voices.”

“Well, there you have it,” Karin said in relief.

“You know who played that way?” Mrs. Levi said. “Your teacher, Miss Violet. The one who wore the cross on her breast. I could have sworn it was her.”

Karin sat on the bench.

“Who’s Miss Violet?” Or asked.

“She still comes here,” Mrs. Levi complained. “You know that just last week I heard a clatter in my Menash’s room in the middle of the night, like someone was putting pots away in a cupboard. I opened the door and I saw Miss Violet in an apron. She gave me an evil smile and then disappeared. And I remembered that Menashe’s room was their kitchen, before they left. And it was not a dream.”

“Who’s Miss Violet?” Or repeated.

“My piano teacher,” Karin said faintly.

“She was one of the girls that used to live here, before the war,” Mrs. Levi explained. “And they ran away and left everything here. So when Karin’s parents were given the upstairs and I got the downstairs, the piano was still there. Then, after we got Jerusalem back, Miss Violet showed up and asked if she could play the piano. She loved that piano and her parents had never been able to afford anything so fine again. So she used to come in and give Karin lessons and then they’d let her play a bit. That was one of her favorite pieces, the one she was playing tonight.”

“Well, it’s quiet now,” Or noted. “We should really all get back to sleep.”

“Yes, go back to bed,” Karin said. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on the piano.”

Mrs. Levi surveyed the two of them disapprovingly and shook her head. “I never know what to expect in this house,” she said, making her way to the door.

“I think I should sleep here,” Karin said. “Help me get a mattress out.”

“I’ll stay with you,” Or said, pulling out the two mattresses that were kept behind the sideboard. “I’d kind of like to meet Miss Violet.”

“I doubt she’ll come.” Karin opened a cupboard and surveyed bed linens in the moonlight. “She was very shy, especially around young men.”

Or flopped the mattresses on the floor. He looked at her for a few seconds. “Ok,” he said. “You’ll tell me in the morning.”

“It depends,” she said, “on the music.


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