Short Story (writing)
Fantasia of an Eight-Year-Old Pianist
Fantasia (n.): 1. An instrumental composition not in strict form. 2. A work in which the author's fancy roves unrestricted. 3. Something possessing bizarre or unreal qualities.
A child reckons with her troublesome home life as she loses herself in Mozart during a piano competition.
Read the complete story below.
Golden Hustler Prize - Short Story of the Year
Ear Hustler Magazine
The narrative structure is a blast. The language, the feather-touch of narrative, the urgent, imaginative mind of the eight-year-old protagonist all combine wonderfully. Basically it's a damn fine story, with plenty of jokes, surprises, and lovely exclamation points. We love it.The Ear Hustler
Kathryn sat at a strange piano in a white circle spotlight searing the middle of what felt like a black tundra that stretched for miles. She told herself, “This is a good place to be.”
This was a good place to be, with three judges at a long table off to the side, sporting tweed suits, serious faces, and pencils scrawling on paper. It was a great place to be, this cavernous theater bulging at the fluted-pillar seams with parents and kids as nervous as she, except she shouldn’t be nervous because she practiced so hard last night and only made nine mistakes. It was a wonderful, magnificent place to be, with her mother and father in the third-from-the-front row, holding their rolled-up programs in their anxious hands, their faces saying, “We love you, Kathryn, no matter what, as long as you win,” and the way everyone was talking, of course she was going to win.
And then they faded into dust specks: the kids, parents, pillars, judges, mother, father. Now it was only her, her black-and-white polka-dot dress, and the strange piano.
She put her left pinky on a low D and began. The piece was called "Fantasia in D Minor" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It had seven sections, and she knew and loved them all.
The opening phrases reminded Kathryn of a fancy Victorian castle at the brink of purple twilight. This was strange. When she played at home or at Ms. Taylor’s, her mind gave her nothing but gray. Now, though, she imagined herself floating through a gilded castle hallway lined with rows of gleaming knights, displayed and elegant in their eternal pause. They held up their swords like communion, sworn to protect Kathryn from all that was bad in this world and the next.
Kathryn’s thick, long fingers traipsed up the keyboard with the precision of dutiful ballerinas, hitting all the eerie, sad, single notes along the way. In the castle, behind Kathryn’s knights, velvet curtains swung like pendulums in time to Mozart’s metronome. She was beholden to no one here: not her father or Ms. Taylor or even a submarine-shaped maid who would say, “Don’t float or hop or jump. You’ll get me in trouble with your father, and then he’ll yell at me and fire me.” No, no. She would be free to float, and hop, and jump through those blurry velvet hallways, quiet and exultant.
Her fingers reached the far right end of the keyboard, clinking all the way up to a high E before twirling back the other way. At the end of the castle hallway, she stopped at an oil painting hung above a fireplace that yawned with orange flickers. The painting, large as a tomb at midnight, was of her scowling father, who wore a pinstripe business suit and held a yellow smiley-face balloon. She gulped, and her fingers melted right into the next section.
She sank into the thick Victorian carpet as if it were quicksand, but she did not scream or whimper. She obeyed. In the middle of the keyboard, she played soft and steady chords, even slower than the lurching, murky, single notes from the hallway of loyal knights. These hollow notes reminded her of a music box from her childhood, and suddenly she was there. She stood, feet planted, atop a massive checkered platform the size of a skyscraper rooftop with porcelain ice skaters in cowboy outfits that towered over her as they twirled and twirled and she could feel cogs clicking beneath the ground.
She was atop her childhood music box!
A cowboy with his smile and arms frozen wide glided past her, and beyond the skaters she saw her old childhood bedroom, blown up nine thousand times. She always wanted to know what her room looked like to these happy and diligent skaters that would come play on her nightstand whenever she needed friends. She ran to the very edge of the music box, grabbed the burnished wooden edge, and peered over. Sure enough, there was her own four-year-old self, giant as ten beanstalks and lit by a star-shaped night light in the corner, sleeping on her side so peacefully, giving off breaths that now sounded as loud as powerful wind fans.
She heard her father’s voice – booming like a Jupiter volcano – talk with her mother’s voice outside her door.
“I don’t know what happened.”
Kathryn’s chords got faster, louder, fiercer.
“You don't know what happened?” her mother’s voice said, featherlight but thunderous as anything else. “What are we going to say to Dr. Mehta? She fell down the stairs again?”
Kathryn hit measure twenty-eight, the one with the whole rest and the fermata. Four counts of heart-beating silence.
Kathryn squeezed the ledge of the music box, and another skater whooshed by, almost sending her right over. She squinted to see her giant four-year-old face in the dark and watched a tear the size of an apple roll down her freckled cheek.
She does not remember this at all. Who is Dr. Mehta?
Kathryn’s fingers returned briefly to their slow, steady, music box pace, but three measures later they mutated into fast, angry, bad-sounding notes, and a cowboy skater sped by and broke out of his porcelain stance – a mannequin springing to evil life! – and with a swing of his icy hand thwacked Kathryn right in her back, making it burn like someone threw acid there, and she lost her balance and fell right over the edge of the outsized music box, and fell and fell and fell...!
Kathryn’s fingers rolled across the keyboard. A flurry. A salvo. A swarm! Sixteenth notes terrorizing the keyboard with such rage, it was absolutely demonic! She did not want to “slow-w-w down” like Ms. Taylor’s crease of a mouth always warned her, like her father always repeated from his reading chair every night, except unlike Ms. Taylor he would mark every dissonant mistake she made with sighs that hissed. She wanted to speed up! She didn’t care what her father wanted!
SHE HATED HER FATHER!
SHE WISHED HIM DEAD!
She wished he would climb into a pool of steak knives and swim against his crying will until every crevice of fat, pudgy, horrible awfulness was drained dry! She wanted him to dive to the bottom of the Pacific and stay there until he contracted a disease that infects the strongest of bioluminescent fish!
She wanted him covered in boils and sores and BRUISES SO BIG THAT NO ONE COULD EVER EXPLAIN THEM TO DR. MEHTA EXCEPT TO SAY, “WELL, IT IS BECAUSE HE IS A HORRIBLE MAN!”
She got every note right.
Now how could Kathryn think that? Her fingers shifted promptly to crisp, upbeat, plucky notes that sounded like a row of Russian men in furry red hats were meant to dance to it and shout, “Barynya!” This part made her happy. It made her wonder how on earth she could think things like that about her own father.
Well, he bought her all those books in her neon blue backpack. He paid for all those lessons and sent her to a really good school. Her father was great! He owned a big lumber company and treated his wife to dinner, dinners that were surely filled with single roses in wine bottles and hot-air balloon rides so high in the sky they could touch moondust. He smiles all the time, too. How could someone who smiles be horrible? Kathryn will never use “horrible” again to describe her father, nor will she use “nasty,” “atrocious,” “terrible,” “repulsive,” “shocking,” “staggering,” or “foul,” even though he has used at least four of those words to describe Ms. Taylor.
Ms. Taylor. Where was she today?
And with that, Kathryn’s fingers were back into a zooming assault of sixteenth notes, fast and light as wasps, traversing the keyboard up and down with such unspeakable turbulence! Where was Ms. Taylor? She was somewhere in the audience, but where where where?
Kathryn wanted to get up from her seat, peer inside the curvy grand piano, and pull out a tongue-like diving board so she could use it to jump and leeeeeeeeeeeap out into the audience, right into Ms. Taylor’s arms! And then Ms. Taylor would say what she always said, which was, “Amazing job, sweetheart, I know you did your best” and Kathryn would say, “Thanks, Ms. Taylor!”
And suddenly the two of them would sprout... dragonfly wings! And they’d join hands and fly away to an ice cream shop or a roller rink, and her parents wouldn’t even mind because her dad would have a heart attack and die, so he would not have time to chase after her and her mother would simply leave him to the paramedics and run out of the auditorium, heels clicking against pavement, and whisper to the sky, “Come home when you please, Kathryn. He haunts your wings no more.”
But no. She needs to stop thinking things like this about such a great, wonderful, and magnificent man. Her rabid sixteenth notes now cooled to smooth, moderate notes that again echoed her childhood music box. By now, though, she was not sure any of it existed. Those cowboy skaters, the apple-sized tear, talks of strange doctors she’s never met? It all had to be her imagination, her infinite and labyrinthine imagination, which her father only encouraged if essay contests were afoot. Otherwise, he said, her imagination only got her in trouble. She had to agree. And as those melancholy music box notes gained momentum yet again, kicking up dust as they prepared to catapult Kathryn into the finale, she only thought, “Yes. My imagination only gets me in trouble, and my father is a great man.”
This section was the most mundane of the whole piece, Kathryn always felt. Its notes were happy and fun and cheery in the most straightforward way, and the switch from D-minor to D-major felt like the whole song collapsed into an uncomplicated lie. But now, she saw the importance of it. This is the only way Mozart could end such a piece fraught with dreary sadness and wild insanity. The notes reminded Kathryn of a farmer in a rocking chair on a nighttime porch, just sitting there and thinking nothing and feeling nothing about his long hard day.
This is the only way to end a piece like this. This is how you waft someone back down to earth, just as Kathryn needed to waft back down to earth, away from imagination and all the pointless thoughts it spat at her. Everything – everything – had to go ‘poof.’ Goodbye, Victorian castle. Goodbye, dragonfly wings. Goodbye, nighttime farmer. POOF POOF POOF. Gone unto specks of ash.
Kathryn needed to stay here in the auditorium. She needed to stay bolted to the ground and to reality. She was here. Only here. Nowhere else but here, in front of an audience of nervous kids and adults, at a strange piano atop a stage that was not black tundra but just a stage and only a stage. As she ended with the final measure of thick and jubilant chords sending her hands this way and that, she told herself over and over, “It is only a stage.”
She finished with a flourish. Every note perfect. The audience clapped waves upon waves of gratitude, and her father and mother stood and shook euphoric thumbs-up at her. Their eyes said, “Thank God.” The judges looked miles into their papers in front of them, and their pencils went jot jot jot. Kathryn stood and gave a cute little curtsy with her black-and-white polka dot skirt, a gesture practiced at home endlessly in front of her father. Someone whistled. It was a high-frequency sort of whistle that curled up into the air like stringy birthday candle smoke. That might be Ms. Taylor! Kathryn squinted, hard, to find her. Alas, she only saw faces, strange and hazy, all of them grinning at what an amazing life this child in front of them was going to have forever and ever until she died. No, Kathryn could not find Ms. Taylor at all, so she just nodded, smiled, and flashed her missing front teeth, and repeated over and over again to herself, “Finito.”