The Stones of Years Ch. 01byAdrian Leverkuhn©
The Starlight Sonata, Part II
(note: part one of the story appeared under the title "Woman in Chains")
The Stones of Years
The air was so cold that the snow underfoot crunched like shards of broken glass on cold, dry stone; each breath the boy drew-in burned so sharply it made his clear blue eyes water. The cold seared his eyes, tears formed and ran down his cheeks; they froze instantly and he peeled them off like brittle old scabs. Every now and then as he walked, and despite the bitter cold, he looked up into the vastness of the night sky to the stars that always stood ready to guide him safely home.
He would never forget those summer nights with his father; they were always with him. The memory would often leave him as quickly as it had come, but he smiled tonight as it lingered with warm arms all around him…
Home… the right stars always pointed to home…
He was tired tonight, very tired, his fingers where cramping and sore, but just as Professor Soloff was his friend and mentor the stars above were his friends as well, his companions, and like Professor Soloff they always reassured him, comforted him when the memories became too real, the grief to sharp. Though they both bound him to a very useable past -- just as the frigid air that burned in his lungs bound him to this life, he knew he could never turn away from either of them, and as such the constrained his idea of what was possible. Yet above all else he would never turn from Madam Soloff.
Even so, he always came back to the stars, listened with wonder to the songs they sang in the darkness.
The stars sang the song of his father.
Madam Soloff had helped him hold on to his father through the darkness.
The lake he walked on had been frozen now for months; the endless Siberian winter -- like the endless Siberian night -- held him in its icy grip just as surely as it held the ice he walked on. The way ahead was endless, impenetrable, and sometimes he felt it was a pale imitation of life. Lost in a thought, he stumbled on a pressure ridge, fell to his knees and winced at the sharp pain that spread up his legs and arms; he cursed, pushed himself up on his arms and checked to make sure the bundle was safely under his coat even as he caught his breath. There was no moon tonight, he reminded himself, so the shadows cast by the stars were hardly enough to see the way ahead. He pushed himself all the way up and brushed up his pants off, picked up his backpack and checked the bundle under his arm, and he moved to walk again; it was in that crystalline moment he first heard it. He had never heard anything like it before…
A faint humming filled the night. The sound was almost like the electric generators working across the lake in the pump-house, yet he could just make out a faint crackling pulse, and suddenly it was as if somehow the noise was all around him. He felt power in the air, a crack like distant thunder split the night, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He shivered violently; he felt as if a current had suddenly and without warning passed through his body. He stood still under the vast dome of the sky, and for a moment he wondered if this was what it meant to be afraid.
'It is behind me,' he said to himself. Whatever 'it' was. He halfway expected to turn and see those funny lights in the night sky that the old men talked of seeing, perhaps one of those spaceships from another world that they talked about when they were roaring-drunk, but he knew they were the delusions of tired, incurious minds. The hair on his neck had been attracted by airborne electro-magnetic currents, not fear. He turned and looked up at the night sky and gasped at what he saw.
They had never come so close before!
Great kaleidoscopic arcs of green mist pulsed overhead, dancing arcs shimmered and hummed and shifted toward violet and pink and back to green again, and Lev Podgolskiv cried tears of pure happiness. He had never heard such music in his life, and his heart filled with immeasurable, limitless joy. His back to the village, all thought of the bitter cold forgotten, he held out his hands as if he had been summoned to conduct a great orchestra. He closed his eyes and listened to the music, his head cocked gently to one side, then his body began to sway gently, his hands to move as if in communion with the pulsing rhythms that filled the sky. From time to time, his eyes barely open, he looked up at Arcturus and smiled, then he closed his eyes again and returned to the warmth of the dream.
"Thank you, Papa," the boy said finally -- as the aurora subsided. He thought of the arrangement of chords he had just learned and committed them to memory, then turned and ran toward the prison he called home.
A street of sorts ran between row after row of splintered log cabins, each identical in the misery they housed, each small hut containing two or perhaps three families. Snow more than a meter deep covered the frozen ground, vast crystalline drifts were piled up under small windows and up against doorways. He walked down paths shoveled carelessly, indeed recklessly; he made his way by dim golden oil-fired light that barely seeped through tattered burlap curtains. The pale light cast contorted purple shadows between the cabins, and he picked his way carefully between them.
The boy walked through these chiseled canyons of snow and ice to a hut in the center of this community, this prison; he walked up to a flimsy door and kicked snow and ice from his boots; he turned the half frozen knob and stepped inside, his face set in stone now, as if he had a secret to keep. He might have been disappointed to find the air inside almost as cold as that outside, but this was his fourth winter in Siberia -- and he knew better than that now. You learned, you adapted, or you perished; there were no bars on these prison walls -- there was no need. That had been the very first lesson he'd learned.
He took a moment to make sure all the snow was gone from his boots, but even so he left his coat on. He walked down the narrow, dimly lit hallway to the room he shared with his brother; though it wasn't late he was certain Misha would be asleep, and was surprised when he opened the door and found him still awake. Misha was sitting in the corner of his bed, blankets bundled around his shivering body. The room was as icy cold tonight as it was every night, perhaps with the clear sky tonight even more so, and of course there was no heat -- just the single oil lamp on the stump that served as a table by their narrow bed. The peaty-wet Siberian mud that served as their floor had frozen solid long ago. He found that marginally better than the sticky muck of their summer floor.
"Well, did you get any food?" Misha asked, knowing that the famous teachers across the lake usually brought gifts of food back for their favored students, and Misha was hoping against hope that Lev had been able to bring some home tonight.
Lev made a glum face and shrugged, but when he saw his brothers crushed expression he relented and opened his coat enough to remove the burlap bundle from under his coat. His brother's eyes changed in an instant, his whole being seemed to lighten for a moment, and he looked expectantly -- if a little guiltily -- at the sack.
"Professor Soloff just returned from Prague. You would not believe the things she saw…"
"I don't give a damn what she saw," Misha said quietly, almost morosely. "What did she give us -- uh, you?"
Lev opened the sack and poured the contents onto their bed.
"Are those smoked oysters?" Misha grinned as he held up the little oblong tin in the dim light. "And sardines, too? My God!"
"I don't know -- I can't read the label, I think it's Japanese; but Misha… look at this!" Lev held up a brown paper rectangle little larger than a deck of cards and he waved it in front of his brother's face.
"Is it… could it…" Misha began, but his eyes filled with tears.
"Yes. From Switzerland. Milk chocolate, with raisins. Can you believe it? From Zurich."
"We must save it!" Misha said, his voice full of firm conviction, but he appeared to waver as he looked at the wrapper. He could feel himself moving off into the dream, the dream he sometimes had of his mother and of her chocolate pastries coming out of the oven, yet already his eyes were scanning the other goodies in the pile. There were two tins of green olives and a small jar of peanuts, a small wedge of pale yellow cheese and some fresh bread, and… a handful of fresh cherries. These last Misha had not seen since he was very young, and he picked one up now and stared wonderingly at it.
"These are cherries, Lev."
"I think so, yes, but whatever they are -- they taste good. But be careful, they have a seed inside."
Misha looked at all the food laid out on the bed and it was all he could do not to cry; Lev pulled apart the stale bread and mashed bits of cheese into it and handed half to his brother. They ate hungrily, picked crumbs from their clothes and the blanket and slipped them wordlessly into their mouths, each eyeing the small bar of chocolate from time to time, each lost in that infinite landscape between caution and desire.
They ate the cherries one by one; Lev put the pits into a small box filled with loose dirt and sprinkled melted snow on them, then he slipped the box back onto the shelf over his bed. Then he looked at Misha, and the chocolate.
"Well?" Lev asked his brother.
"Let's save it. I'm almost full now, and who knows how long it will be before we see so much food again."
"You're right," Lev said as he took the chocolate and the oysters and put them inside his old leather suitcase under the bed. He buckled the straps and slid it back under the bed, looked at the flame in the oil lamp and the steady beat of its light as he leaned against the ice-cold wall.
What a strange night it had been.
He wrote music for a while, then looked at his brother. He was soon asleep, fighting his way across the tortured landscapes of his nightmares.
'Won't they ever end?' he asked himself as he looked at this little mirror of himself laying there. 'God, let him know peace just once in this life.'
Professor Soloff -- people close to her heart had called her Miriana once upon a time --returned to the "village" that morning from a concert tour of Old Europe; she had spent the morning telling her best students of weird and wonderful cities and impossible luxuries and of being watched every moment of every day by men and women whose sole job it was to keep her from disappearing into labyrinthine corridors of escape. Of escape, she told them, while her handlers looked on, of escape into the seductive fantasies of the decadent West. Yet when the True Believers had abandoned their listening posts, all the teachers spoke in hushed tones of the vast conspiracies used to keep their "counter-revolutionary tendencies" bottled-up inside this soul-numbing deep-freeze; of course in time these sidelong whispers had spread out among their students like ripples across a still pond. Flames of resentment -- perhaps too long damped by this long Siberian night of their lives -- were kindled and stoked, kept alive, waiting; dichotic conversations formed within the notes of the music they shared with their students and spread across all their souls like a Siberian sunrise. She lived, like all of them, in a dichromic dream -- a dream of bitter cold days and warmer nights. The warmth of these dreams was the only warmth Miriana Soloff knew anymore. She longed for release… for escape. She longed to live again.
Miriana often returned with treats for her most favored students, but these days she held none in higher regard than Lev Podgolskiv, and consequently she lavished upon this most favored pupil almost everything her handlers had allowed her to keep.
Now they sat side by side in her classroom; she watched his hands caress the keys of the old piano, and she felt connected to the future through this boy. She saw in Lev's blue eyes and within the brilliant white skin of his fingers some vague semblance of the future and that, she knew, was the real flame she kindled. She knew she was too old, her time in this life too short, to return to the land from whence her dreams came. No, her hopes would come to life again in Lev's eyes. His fingers and that glorious mind would give birth to her dreams one day, and through them the voice of the silenced would be heard, and this story would at long last be told as only he would be able to.
She listened to him now, watched him play, chided him gently when he misread a veiled emotion or drifted into discordant timing, but she watched his fingers as they danced over her keys. They were as always touching her soul, carrying her gently along distant Silesian streams -- by a mist-laden farm draped in the careless shadows of weeping willows and apple blossoms floating lazily by on Spring breezes.
'Oh, the music you'll make,' she said to herself. 'How our world will cry.'
"Are you alright, Professor?" she heard him say, and she came back to the frigid reality of the barren yellowed room.
"Lev, oh my? What did you say?" She turned, saw him looking at the scars on her hands.
"You were crying, Professor."
"Was I? How silly of me. Perhaps it is the music?"
"I did not think it so sad. Do you?"
"Debussy was complicated, Lev. The Suite bergamasque was complicated by so many contradictions of form, so I suppose that depends on your point of view, and more importantly, how the artist chooses to interpret the music."
"But the prelude is so… playful! And the Passepied …"
"But the heart of the work is the third section. Moonlight, yes? And how is it played?"
"Yes. Softly, gently. Not playful, Lev."
"A bergamasque. Do you remember what I told you about the meaning of the form?"
"Yes, a medieval dance, from Bergamo, in northern Italy."
"And? Why is this of any importance?"
"It is the form of the dance in A Midsummer Night's Dream, taken from the form of a ritualized dance in the medieval city of Bergamo."
She smiled. "And so, why is that significant?"
"Because the dance occurs in the forest land of the fairies, under the light of the full moon. It is in that moment that spells are cast…"
"Ah, so Debussey makes reference to a rustic medieval dance employed by Shakespeare in a comedy, yes? All in a suite that draws reference to a poem by Verlaine. So then, why do you suppose he chose to end with a Passepied?"
"An homage to the Baroque, to the purity of Handel. The Passepied, the passing feet, a reference to the fleeting nature of time as a part of the very nature of existence."
"Alright, Lev; so why is the Clair de Lune pianissimo? If Debussey's intent was to explore the playfulness of time itself?"
The boy looked at his teacher, crestfallen, lost, and suddenly the weight of all her expectations broke her heart. He was so very young, too young, really, to understand the immense emotions contained within such vast works, yet when he played she could feel his implicit understanding of the music within the music. But then… he looked at her and spoke again…
"Because all that has befallen the lovers up until the interlude in the forest has been a comedy of errors, but when Puck is at work, when spells are cast -- under the moonlight -- the nature of truth is revealed, love is revealed as the greatest of human truths, and tragedy within that truth becomes manifest. The passepied develops as their re-emergence into the stream of time, it is their rebirth. The perfection of the baroque form affirms the perfect truth of human existence."
Miriana blinked rapidly while Lev spoke. 'My God,' she said to herself. 'My God, he's only twelve!' He was looking at her -- not expectantly, not looking to her for approval -- but trying to understand what was in her heart. She wanted to cry, to hold him, to give to him all that had been taken from him, but she knew these impulses were wrong, they would only hurt him in the end, confuse him only more.
Instead she pulled back, looked at him cooly. "That's a very workable summary, Lev. Yes, very insightful. So, what is the focal point of the Suite -- in it's entireity…"
They continued to talk a while longer; she had him play key passages again, play them as written, play them in different styles, until she knew he was sure what the music meant in his own heart, to his very soul.
As afternoon turned to evening she grew tired, gave him the treats she had brought back from Prague and Bratislav, told him to hide them carefully, and reluctantly she sent him on his way.
Despite the cold she stood outside the classroom building and watched him walk across the lake; he had seemed so happy, so excited that these treats would help his brother. He seemed so connected to both the happiness and the sorrow of the people he loved, and was so oblivious to his own needs, and she worried about him, about his soul, and how he would survive in this horrible place. With his knowledge and insight he seemed so very strong, yet she could feel the fragility residing beside his core. It was as if his soul had grown porous and brittle, unnaturally tired and -- old, with each winter he endured.
As he ran across the lake she heard the sky come alive and stepped out onto the ice and snow under the stars; she turned to look at the spreading aurora and smiled as the majesty of the moment washed through her. She turned, looked at Lev standing in the middle of the lake, his arms raised, his eyes apparently closed, swaying to music unseen and as yet unheard, and she gasped when she understood what his movements meant. She began to cry, slowly, gently, but her grief gave way and she broke down completely.
"Oh, my God! No! Not again!" she gasped between sobs. "Not again, God! Not again! It is too soon!"
Vasily Kushnirenko stood by the window in his darkened office; he looked at the vast frozen lake and the clear black sky, and beyond -- into the infinite darkness that had always terrified him. He picked at his fingers, chewed a tag of skin off his thumb and spit it out, then lit another cigarette. He drew the smoke in deeply and coughed, then coughed again, and when he felt little bits of spittle hit his hand he wiped them on his trousers.
Though he was from Leningrad, the labor and re-education camp at Surgut was under his nominal charge. He considered himself very sypathetic to musicians, and even though the very best ones in the camp were Jews he tried to not let that distasteful fact color his judgement of the men and women he presided over. But even after years of rehabilitation, after years of being provided for by the State, he detested the ones who continued to make trouble.
And the very best caused him nothing but the most extreme trouble.
Now, word had come down from on high that the Soloff bitch had been contacted in Prague by people long suspected of helping smuggle citizens into the West. His superiors were livid once again; he had assured them before this last trip that she had been rehabilitated, that it was safe to showcase her talents once again. Now they were demanding she be made an example of; the others needed to be reminded of the dangers they all faced by spreading their relentless discontent about so carelessly. It was a contagion that could -- and would -- consume them all.
"So be it," Kushnirenko said into the darkness. Between drags on his cigarette he closed his eyes, imagined what he might do to her. She was old, perhaps too old to fuck, but some of the older guards might enjoy taking her; perhaps he would make the other women watch as she was raped again and again. Or her students? Might that not silence those impressionable young minds once and for all time?