Concise Prose. Enough Said.
purple feathers backround pattern


A novel excerpt by Andrea J. Buchanan

"I'll need you tonight," he says.

Just like that, as if she were his assistant. Or maybe she misheard, maybe he said "knead," not "need." Those English words. Everything should be written. Then it would make sense to her.

"All right," she tells him, her head lowered, her teeth biting the inside of her cheeks. Her face must look hollowed, but he doesn't notice. Mordecai walks across the room, finds his coat, grabs his hat, picks up his briefcase, and stands at the door. He is so short, he looks like a child wearing his father's clothes. Still, he has a presence. Despite his height, his awkwardness, there is something daunting about him. She has no doubt he will knead her tonight. Tenderness is difficult.

He jangles something in his pocket, not money; they do not have enough for him to carry some in his coat just for the pleasing clatter. It is his keys.

"No playing," he says. She looks at the upright piano against the wall.

"Lise, you hear?"

Does he mean, has she heard him? Or is he asking, is she here? She nods her head.

"No playing," he repeats. "I have to go." She looks up for a moment and their eyes meet. He gives a curt nod and then he leaves. She hears his key in the lock, shutting her in.

He has locked the piano before, too, but she always found the key. When he realized that wasn't working, he tried clamping the lid shut, but she pried it open. Finally he hit upon his most recent solution, taking the blades from his razors.

I'm putting these here , he told her, pointing to the keyboard with one of the gray, rusted edges. You won't know which key hides them, I'll change them every day if I have to. There could be ten, there could be twenty, there could be one. There could be nothing. You don't know. But if you risk it, if you try to play – slice! your finger is gone. There is the end of your playing. Forever.

Isn't that what you want? she asked.

Of course that's not what I want. Someday you'll play. Just not now. Not in my house.

Since then, every day, while he's gone looking for work or visiting the galleries, trying to interest someone in his paintings, she lifts the lid and searches methodically, staring into the sliver of darkness between the keys, looking for the gleam.

When she is sure he's gone, she pulls out the stool. It is always adjusted to her height; Mordecai doesn't play. She feels around the underside of the fabric seat until she finds the unraveling seam that falls away a little where it joins the wood, and she pulls a key from inside the cushion. She knows his hiding spots. After she unlocks the lid, she stands there in the silence, willing the notes to sound, afraid to cross the desperate, razor-thin line he has put between her and her music.

The piano isn't dusty, but she dusts it anyway. That is as close as she can get to playing. So she rubs the cracked polish on the upright's long sides, traces the gash where Mordecai and his friends inadvertently scraped it against the doorjamb when they first moved it here, slides the dust-rag along her favorite part, the silky curve of lid, which has a gloss long since weathered away on the rest of the instrument.

On the top of the piano, eye-level, is a framed photograph, a pile of her music books. Mordecai doesn't like himself in pictures, but he has allowed her this one sentimentality: A photo of the two of them the first summer they met. It is sepia, the way all their early photographs are, and the two of them are blurry, in motion, walking toward the camera as if to escape its gaze. She is looking up, one eye on the photographer, while he walks, hand on his hat, head down. In the corner she has written, "Summer, 1929."

It wasn't long after that that they were married, and it wasn't long after that that Mordecai had surprised her with the piano. She had been practicing when she could on the grand piano of the house where she cleaned most days. And then one afternoon, while she was preparing their stew for dinner, she heard the raucous laughter of Mordecai's artist friends on the stairs. How the three of them pushed that piano up she'll never know. But when they burst in the door, they were drunk with the effort of it. Rafael and Charles pushed it in, scraping it on the door, and then stood laughing and flanking Mordecai like they were his much older brothers, so tall they nearly reached the ceiling.

"Well?" Rafael asked finally. "You will say nothing?"

She remembers the blood rushing to her face, she remembers wiping her hands on her apron. She remembers she couldn't say a word. She ran over to where they stood, the battered upright barely in the doorway, already dominating the small apartment. They hadn't yet brought the stool up, but she threw open the lid and ran her hands over the keys. She began a Bach Invention before she could speak. When her eyes welled up so that she couldn't see the black keys from the white, she stopped playing and brought her hands to her face.

"Neshomeleh," Mordecai said, putting his hands on her shoulders in a rare public gesture of affection. "It is enough to see you so happy."

"Thank you," she finally was able to say, turning to embrace him. "And thank you," she said to Rafael and Charles, who blushed and kissed her on both cheeks.

"Is there wine? We must have wine," Rafael said. Charles nodded his head. The twin brothers looked nearly identical, but it was easy for Lise to tell them apart. Rafael had the big voice, the social ease. Charles was more uncomfortable with words, with other people. He was an imperfect copy of his brother, Rafael's shadow. But they were equally talented artists. Already by then they were exhibiting and selling their works more than Mordecai could stand to know.

She found the wine Mordecai had saved from their wedding and brought it out for them. Rafael, tall and dark, his olive skin shining with the exertion of moving the piano, overtook their one chair, so Charles and Mordecai sat on the bed. They stayed and talked and begged her to keep playing until late into the evening, until the neighbors banged on the walls and floor and ceiling for them to stop singing, stop playing music, stop making a racket.

She learned later that Rafael had helped Mordecai sell his favorite painting to buy the piano. Man with a Hammer. It was an oil painting of a worker, hammer in hand, his arms raised as if to bring that tool down on something terribly hard. You could see the exertion in the definition of his muscles. Lise admired the painting for its execution, but to Mordecai it was a political statement. The drab olives and rusts only helped to flesh out his ideology. She was stunned that he would part with it, his proudest work, but all Mordecai would say about the sale, trading the painting for the piano, was, "For you, motek , it was necessary," and awkwardly kiss her on the cheek.

Those were different times, she thinks, placing the picture frame back on the piano. Rafael and Charles no longer burst into their apartment demanding wine or regaling her with tales of their latest project. They were bona fide celebrities now, their art the new wave of the art world. And Mordecai was nowhere. Mordecai was doing factory work, Mordecai was going from gallery to gallery on their show days, hoping for someone to recognize his genius.

She slams the lid down, locks it, and puts the key back in its hiding place. In the kitchen, she starts peeling potatoes and slicing carrots for the soup she must make for dinner. She boils the water for broth and pinches some flour in to thicken it up. All the while, though, she can't help thinking of the piano, Mordecai's booby traps waiting to catch her if she tries to play.

Since the introduction of the razors, she would no more attempt to play than she would trespass into his studio, where his recent work is done in secrecy and hidden from her. And yet as she cooks in their dark kitchen, as she cleans the counters and floors with vinegar, as she lights the kerosene lamp in the living room to have some light by which to read on this gloomy morning, she is filled with a righteous fury. Why should she be denied the chance to practice? Why should only Mordecai be allowed to shut himself away in solo creativity, to be absorbed in something separate from her? Why should she let these things be slowly taken from her, her music, the students she once taught, her own studies? For she used to train, she used to teach, she had a teacher who encouraged her, who called her, once, in front of Mordecai's ashen face, an artist.

She goes to the piano again, determined. A rush of something makes her heart beat in her ears with a sound like soldiers marching. She will do it. She will defy him.

She retrieves the key again and unlocks the lid, sitting down on the piano stool. She starts at the low A, pressing down with one finger slowly so that the key's hammer does not strike the string. She is careful to keep her other fingers out of the way. One by one she searches, the same slow motion, silent playing. At the 23rd key she sees it, in towards the back, a metal flash against the black wood. She holds down the key with her left hand and slides the razor up the side of the G-sharp with her right hand. It is hard to do, and she loses the razor a few times, dropping it back down into the key bed. Finally her fingernail catches hold of a spot and she pulls it out completely. When she holds it like this, thumb and forefinger pinching a small grey rectangle, the blade seems innocuous. She places it on the top of the piano and pulls out the scrap of paper she has in her shirt pocket, writes down "G#, key 24" so she'll remember where to put it back later.

It takes her a half-hour to find the blades. She goes over the keyboard twice, from bottom to top and top to bottom, weighting each key evenly, equally, silently. There are only four blades this time, and she has noted each one: G#, key 24; D#, key 43; B, key 63; F, key 72. He must have a similar scrap of paper somewhere, some crumpled thing keeping track of where he put the blades. She plays each of the no longer dangerous notes one at a time, letting the sound fall away into silence before she goes on to the next one. Maybe one day she'll create a piece out of the notes she has written down. Or maybe he will. She likes the thought of the both of them writing down the names of the keys, secreting the notations in their shirt pockets, composing in furtive antiphony.

By the time she is done making sure the keyboard is safe, it is nearly time for him to come home. He is never gone too long. She smooths her hands over the keys, the ivories pockmarked and nicked in all the familiar places. Even knowing she has searched each crevice she is still afraid to play. What if she has missed something? What she is doing is subversive, disobedient; maybe, if she sliced her finger and contracted tetanus, even deadly. She doesn't have time for much, maybe a quick Impromptu, or a movement from the Schubert. She can't decide what to play, so she runs a quick C-sharp major scale and decides upon an old favorite. Brahms, the Op. 118 Intermezzo. It is a love song, a bittersweet, unrequited love song. When she first learned it as a girl, it seemed full of mystery, a message from some distant world. Now she understands it. Now it is merely heartbreaking.

When she is done, she is greedy for more. She wants to feel her fingers moving, making music. She wants to keep sculpting sound out of the twanging upright and the cramped acoustics of their apartment. She wants to feel the power of the music coursing through her; to savor the God-like ability to decide dynamics, voicing, timing; to be luxurious while stretching out a phrase and expanding time, economical while quickening here and there to get it back; to experience the pleasure of a solitary performance.

But she knows she has no time, no divine power, knows that this is an expressly forbidden pleasure. She puts back the blades, inserting them between the keys the way he must have done last night when she was asleep, so she wouldn't see, couldn't hear in the event that he accidentally sounded a note. Was it random, the placement of these sharp implements? Was it a message? Could he know, for instance, that today's four blades were placed next to notes that spelled the opening chord of Tristan und Isolde? She replaces them all, careful not to touch the blades directly. Then she closes the lid, locks it with the key he had specially made, and returns the key to its spot inside the stool cushion.

"You have been playing," he says when he returns. It is an accusation.

"I have been listening." She points to the record player on the table near where she sits. It is true; she has spent the rest of the morning listening to Schubert.

"Look at you, you're flushed. It's disgraceful."

She puts her hands to her cheeks and they do feel warm. And why not? He cannot regulate her response to what she hears anymore than she can.

"Did you have any luck today?" she asks.

He takes off his hat and hangs it near the front door. He pauses before giving his standard answer that is not an answer. "I'm going to work. I have some ideas I need to sketch before they are gone." He heads into the room they have given over to his supplies, his canvases and paints and the pieces he has been obsessively finishing and refinishing. She hasn't seen them. He has not allowed her in his studio for a year now.

"Dinner at 5:30?" she asks.

"Sure," he nods. And then he shuts the door, locking it.

She sits down on the piano stool, playing the Brahms on the locked lid, her fingertips knocking and pressing on the wood, until he is ready.

Andrea J. Buchanan is the author of Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It and managing editor of Her work has been featured in the The Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and Nick Jr. magazine; in the collection Breeder: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers; and in various online magazines. She is the editor of the anthologies It's a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons (Seal Press, Nov. 2005) and It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (Seal Press, May 2006), and she is the coeditor of Literary Mama: Collected Writing for the Maternally Inclined (Seal Press, Jan. 2006). She has work forthcoming in the collections The Imperfect Mother and About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage.

Hidden is an excerpt from Andrea's novel-in-progress, Heart Like A River.

Top photo "Piano Ghost" courtesy of Ames Goodwin.
Bottom photo courtesy of

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