Story — From the September 2015 issue

Tremendous Machine

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Spindling, white Fjóla Neergaard, in dun wool slacks, her marble face perched on a whorl of scarves, drove her father’s Mercedes through a trash-blown lane of reupholsterers and auto-body shops in a Krakow suburb. She was looking for a sofa.

Her breakfast — a soft-boiled egg, a slice of tomato, two gherkins, and black tea — was over. The morning squall was over, and the attendant downpour was over, and the little flood had drained into the sewers. Her childhood dread of crossing bridges and her allergy to cashews were over. She had vanquished them. But that period when we have the strength to kill dragons by merely throwing a rock at them was also over: the early adult years when our powers are perfect and we either find the work of our prime or we don’t. Fjóla Neergaard had not found it. Dieting did not qualify as a vocation. Her dogged attempts to turn it into one had failed; she had not landed a shoot in more than a year. To feel disappointed or to object that fate or fashion had mistreated her was cheap. She might go on treating her body like the sarcophagus of a virgin martyr if she wanted, but its market value was zero.

Illustrations by Andrea Dezsö

Illustrations by Andrea Dezsö

For most of the spring, she had been living in torpid exile at her parents’ vacant Polish country house, in a state of tedious hunger that, lacking the prospect of an interested camera, served no one and nothing. She read Danish, French, German magazines in the cavernous salon, neatly tearing out the pages as she absorbed the pictures with compulsive jealous agony, and feeding them to the fire, which went green in flickers from the glossy paper. For weeks, her bones luxuriated in the aches and stabs of napping on the hearth rug. Physical discomfort was so often the cost of her little achievements as to have become their reward. Then she got a wild idea: why not employ her father’s checkbook to buy a sofa and read her magazines on cushioned furniture? Beyond this ambition — as she cruised the puddled streets, struggling to decipher the Polish exclamations on the signboards — she had no plans.

Her parents, Axel and Annelise, inseparable in work and play, were leveraging other people’s debt in Frankfurt, or else skin diving on Majorca. They couldn’t have been at home, in Copenhagen: the maid was not answering the phone there, and where they went the maid went also. Anyway, Axel Neergaard detested extravagance, and he especially detested the extravagant modesty in which Fjóla lived while alone. If she could have tracked him down, he would have agreed to his flower’s buying whatever furnishings her coziness required and lazing on them as long as she liked, watching whatever picnics or storms or revolutions were going on inside her shriveled brain. Her mother on the extension would likewise have agreed — even though (she would have added, in the mother-daughter telephone language of tsks and pauses with which they carried on simultaneous sidebar conversations beneath Axel’s notice) Fjóla really must understand that by secluding herself like this she was betraying everybody who cared about her, as well as that formless striving that burned within Fjóla’s ribs, privately, shamefully, invisible to anyone else but her mother. The maid thought Fjóla ruined by comfort and would not clean her bathtub.

Communism was freshly over, and you could buy a sweeping agricultural property, complete with a derelict seven-bedroom middle-European manor, for a price that in Paris would have bought you a pair of reliable shoes. Ergo the house in Poland, which contained little more than its floors — oak boards, handsome wool carpets, granite in the bathrooms underfoot and up the walls like a crypt. Immense leadlight windows gave out on cropland and orchards, the glass in quarrels, turbid, centuries old, twisting the light a little. New plaster in the stairwells and the sloping ceilings. You noticed the surfaces, the flouncy old light fixtures: there was so little else in the house.

Her father would no more have taken ownership of the house without arranging for the meticulous erasure of its flaws and for its maintenance in its new trim form than he would have stepped onto an airplane without a necktie, but he never expected that anybody would live there. Least of all Fjóla, creature of room service, a girl to whom pastoral breezes and sunshine were poison. Axel Neergaard had merely speculated in a parcel of cut-rate hectares to which a pesky house was attached. The house itself would never appreciate. It was less an asset than a fee. It had one bed.

But now Fjóla would acquire a sofa and have it planted close to the fire, where with any luck a cracking ember would hop onto the upholstery while she slept (dreaming as she sometimes did that she was Napoleon sacking Egypt in a muscly bronze breastplate) and immolate her, and the sofa, and the rugs, and the house. All of them weightless as smoke. Over, forever.

She turned the Mercedes right, and right again, and right again, around a colossal block of crumbling concrete in which, a placard alleged, a furniture outlet was housed. Yet the building had no proper doors. She parked and climbed the wooden ladder of a loading dock at a gape in the masonry covered with a plastic tarp that dappled her with storm droplets when she pulled it aside. Yellow fluorescent light, in a burst. She entered a warehouse of old sideboards, fiberglass garden tables, love seats with their springs lolling in the open. Chamber after chamber smelling of straw and bleach. She announced herself by making no sound at all and being pretty in a big room.

Clocks and armchairs and old reel-to-reel tape players, but nobody attending them. A lustrous oak door leaned against a wall crowded with mirrors from which the silvering was peeling away. On closer inspection the door was in fact mounted in the wall. She turned its knob and passed down a dark corridor redolent of pine-scented mop water. At the far end of the corridor, a second door, of steel and glass.

Bright light coming through the glass.

She opened it.

She went inside.

A vast room now enclosed her, its columns seeming near collapse from rust, the concrete floor sown in every direction with pianos.

They were tall, squat, brown, black, red, white, newish, antique, on wheels, and on stylized paws. They stood right side up, or upside down, or legless on their shoulders, or aslant against a post with their innards spilled on the floor. Instinctively she surveyed the room for a lavatory in case she should need to vomit.

From a shadowed bulkhead, a wan and carbuncular man emerged. He wore a whipcord jacket and pulled the tail of his tie from between his shirt buttons. Fjóla followed Polish doubtfully, via Russian, but she thought he said, “You tell Constantine to come here himself. I don’t talk to lawyers.”

“How do you do?” she said in her best accent.

“If he can’t manage —” The eyes went down and came up again.

All at once the spotted face rearranged itself. “I beg your pardon. You have caught us at a moment of transition,” he said in English. “But if I may be of some help to you it would of course be my sincerest pleasure.” He bowed. Customer service was so new here you sometimes saw it taken to such excesses.

His tone was clipped, world-weary, sinister, calm, his speech punctuated with clever profanities about the weather. Shortly, he was sitting at a Schimmel grand, circa 1932, with a strange finish — faded yet shining, like wet coal — and elaborate custom scrollwork around the case. It had a new soundboard and pin block, he said, and fresh hammers furry as peaches, but she had no idea what any of that meant. As to her question about how such an instrument had survived the war, and even, thoughtlessly, in whose home it had presided before the war, the dealer responded, “I couldn’t know.” In any event, he could tell her, until recently a clerk in the Ministry of Transport and Maritime Affairs had owned the piano. This fellow had quit the country and was not expected —

“And the cost?” she interjected in Polish.

“But you should hear it first. I know an excellent mover, you’ll permit me to mention. He also tunes. A father-and-son firm. Those are lovely pants.”

She stuck her head under the lid. Hammers beat the strings. She had always assumed a piano worked by plucking. She lowered her face to the mechanism as though to smell it while the dealer played a piece she didn’t recognize — until she did recognize it, and then she needed so intensely to be able to play it herself that she believed indeed she could play it, right then. Her sinuses reverberated, and the hairs in her nose itched. The instrument was playing her. It was not true that she had never before today played a piano. In a concurrent life, heretofore undetected, she had done little else. The piece was “Clair de Lune.” She believed she could play it with her will.

Bent, breathing deep, grinning painfully, strapped within a leather truss, unaided by anything but himself, with small stolid steps up the narrow foyer stairs, Marek, the young Atlas, carried the enormous instrument on his back into her salon. Under his feet the boards shrieked. The machine was wrapped in twine and blankets. The legs and lyre post had been removed. Down his arm a long skeleton tattoo depicted the bones inside so that the limb looked like a moving X-ray. From this burr-headed and swollen creature Fjóla wished to extract some blood and drink it and become strong.

His father, half the boy’s size, waited with her by the fireplace, his hands well scrubbed but stained by grease, unpacking his sprockets. In German he said, “I specialize in Volkswagens and Steinways, but also I work on Audis and Schimmels.” She had acquired a very good piano, he explained, as Marek affixed the legs and lyre and righted the instrument amid the twisted surround of the old windows. “But the weather up here will visit hell on every moving part. I might have to adjust the tune four times a year. Who in the household plays?” he asked.

“What household?” the Atlas chirped, looking about him at the cavernous rooms.

His father spoke a chastising Polish syllable, and the boy’s countenance deflated like a shamed dog’s.

Illustrations by Andrea DezsöAs they were leaving, the father gave her the phone number of a once-famous interpreter of the Baroque masters who had done well enough under the military government to, well, inhibit her prosperity, if you took his meaning, under Solidarity. The nation disgraced itself to reduce a talent such as Katarzyna Kloc to taking new students in her old age, but for the right price paid under the table she would surely do it.

Over the phone, Mrs. Kloc demanded six months’ tuition up front.

“Come back to Krakow at once,” she said, “and buy this volume which I will say the title if you have a pencil. You must always have a pencil now.”

In the striped terrain of newly sprouted sunflowers, flax, and cabbages that led up to the house, a spot appeared. Soon the spot took the shape of a runty and faded white Trabant coupe coming very fast. Clumps of jetsam plastic floated around it like blossom petals in the roadside weeds.

The car slowed in the dip where frost heaves rippled the thin pavement, then raced up the drive and stopped. From the driver-side door, the teacher unfolded herself and stamped up the gravel walk, gripping her purse to her belly, compact and certain in her limbs. A cherry bough overhung the front door. She swatted it out of her way and knocked. She declined tea, coffee, rye crackers. She took a seat in the bay window (there were no chairs), turning her back on the yellow-green world outside. She faced the nearly empty room, the old eyes steady and red. The long bent neck aimed her senses at the piano and the student seated there.

As Fjóla started to play, a shudder twisted up the side of the older woman’s face. “Please,” she said. “The lullaby is not a burning house to escape. Slow down.”

Fjóla proceeded to the C-major scale, which she played almost well.

“How many times you have practiced this since we spoke?”

“I don’t know,” Fjóla said, “about five hundred?”

Mrs. Kloc told her to repeat it, whereupon the scale reverted to a rant, more emphatic and garbled each time Fjóla tried to start it again.

The only language they had in common was French.

After a quarter of an hour, Mrs. Kloc remarked in passing, “For reason of my fee I will come out here, but one must say — you will not succeed. The body is not the right body. The biceps, forearm, are lank. Like mousse. Even the chest, if I may say, is meager. Spirit requires, to express itself, the appropriate vehicle. Imagine the car that whines — the belts move on the pulleys, but the belts are frayed. Today or tomorrow they will break. Pfft. There! But proceed.”

From Fjóla’s dark, superficial eyes, cool and peaceful-seeming, no trace emerged of the workings of her private mind.

She continued to the Hanon drills. The crystal chandelier floated above like a particulate octopus about to dive and murder them.

Her pearlish body grew slick. She descended into such a panic of repeated drills that when Mrs. Kloc told her to stop, the hands kept going on their own, and the old woman had to reach over the keyboard and grab them. Mrs. Kloc recoiled at once, as though Fjóla’s bedeviled hands had shocked her.

“What? What did I do?” Fjóla asked.

“Why didn’t you tell me? You’re burning alive!” Mrs. Kloc said. “To become ill I cannot afford.”

“I’m not ill,” Fjóla said. “I’m just warm.”

“You must understand this is a superb instrument. Not an exercise device for sweating.”

“Yes.”

“This instrument is more important than you.”

“Yes, all right.”

“You must comport yourself before it as before your last possession.”

From the beginning she played seven hours a day, to a maximum of nine, six days a week. She ate canned herring in oil, or brown bread, which she kept on an upturned box next to the piano, along with her pencil and practice notebook, cigarettes, and a spoon. Housekeepers she never saw tidied all this on Fridays, when she made herself go to Krakow and drink among the riffraff at a bar of labyrinthian halls and many dark rooms, where she escaped the notice of predatory lurkers and read under a lamp. The bar was a Noah’s ark of pub décor from the world over. Whiskey barrels, bagpipes, and Chinese paper dragons hung at irregular intervals from the ceiling and eaves; also embossed metal advertisements for Indian beer, mandolins, violins, old saws, clam rakes, sub-Saharan tribal statuary, plastic prawns stuck in nets. Above the cash register, a wooden rabbi the size of a Christmas-tree ornament dangled upside down. It was autumn already, and the first smell of wood smoke pervaded every room. Fjóla was beautiful here, observant, wild with loneliness, as at peace as the bricks in the paving. The bar was called Café Devil Heaven.

Illustrations by Andrea DezsöThen a hulk squeezed past her table, excusing himself on his way to the darkly glowing Wurlitzer. His nylon jacket was embroidered on the back with the silhouettes of a piano and a race car. It was not such a big town. If she looked at the back hard enough he would turn around and be the Atlas, Marek. The opening power chords of a ballad by a Norwegian metal band concussed the room. The hulk went on pressing buttons with his back to her. No, but looking hard did not suffice; she had to want hard, and wait.

The great nylon back came about like a square sail in the wind.

Marek pointed, grinning in recognition, bowled up to her table, and insisted that she dance with him. He had the blindly cheerful eyes of a North American tourist.

“No,” she responded over the music. She looked at her magazine. There was a servile interview with a smelly little ad-agency art director who had once told her that her clavicles were too suppressed to model his client’s clothes. She whipped over the page.

“Yes, or I shall cry,” Marek said in English.

“You don’t even remember who I am.”

“I do. You are Ewa or Mary. And you were reading at Devil Heaven. Sadness. But then you danced. See?”

She ordered some aquavit for herself while Marek loomed, pleading. She paid the hoyden waitress with a handful of coins spilled on the table. He extracted a few serrated cupronickel pieces from this pile and made Fjóla take them back while the waitress poured abuse on him. When Fjóla recognized the abuse as a flirtation, she interrupted to say, “All right, I’ll dance.”

Once, she had waltzed with a commodore in the Danish navy, a sleek dope who believed her when she told him she had been on the cover of the Japanese edition of Marie Claire. But he had had an intelligent body, and its contact made her body intelligent too as they moved, in opposition but in concert across the floor of an ambassador’s residence in Copenhagen, revolving and also spinning, in epicycles, and yet they did not get dizzy somehow, both free and both constrained. A wondrous airy nothing under her feet. She said, “I don’t want it to end!” He offered her two gelatin capsules — the slang for them was “Rockslide.” Then there was a bathroom upstairs, going into a bathroom with him, a chenille peacock on the bath mat. She woke up in a hotel bed three days later — she would later learn it was three days — mad with thirst, and called down for diet Fanta and mineral water. But the concierge spoke no Danish. What? Because she was in Brussels. And she was fifteen years old. And had a terrible headache. Terrible behind the one eye and wandering behind the other. And Mother and Father were in Turkey looking at statues, or buying them.

Marek’s form of dancing, on the other hand, was more a pantomime of sexual intercourse. Fjóla let him go on while his friends, or whoever they were, all these people who knew him or admired him the way strong people are admired, hooted and clapped. Into her ear he declared, “I am whatever I am, but I do love cars and motorcycles.”

Once outside with him she was still warm as always, though she wore a flimsy dress that might have been laundered in a soup bowl.

Fog moved low on the street. People came and went from the bars, the alone ones smeared with contempt, principally for themselves. The low moon shone like a watchtower light on the ratty square, where shiftless young people milled amid disused tenements, the residents of which had been rounded up and gassed fifty years earlier. She knew this from a book. She had found no signs or monuments. She asked Marek about the rabbi. She just asked him. “That is merely a custom,” he said. “Because if you hang him with the head up, the money will not fall out of his pockets.”

From a kiosk Marek bought them each a split baguette with pizza toppings on it. He still hadn’t bothered to ask her name. Rain fell. They took shelter under an awning. Cars drove through the rain and, by way of parking, humped the curb with two wheels.

By the time the two of them were driving to the farm, Marek’s English had lapsed and he distended himself in the leather of her father’s car, rhapsodizing on the brand. He kept repeating the word “Mercedes” among slurred Slavicisms.

It had not rained here, and smoke pervaded the breeze. The farm tenant had left an immense pile of chaff burning in his field. Marek and Fjóla walked single file up the foyer stairs.

She never remembered the commodore’s name. Later, she did remember a car, waking up in daylight in a car on a seaside highway, and then a room, about to enter the room, about to enter the room with the nameless commodore, thinking, Now I’ll go in there forever.

When she went into the dark salon, the piano was like a seal asleep, fat and noble. She didn’t dare go near it. To be even a little drunk in its presence embarrassed her. She unwrapped her scarves and turned on the current in the chandelier.

The Atlas, gnawing an apple, stared with bafflement and then illumination at the instrument he had put there.

“You are Fjóla!” he crowed. “The Danish girl.”

The only way out had been to buy a piano. That she had had no musical education proved that she must now undertake one. That she had never much cared for music before demonstrated the salvation it would provide her.

At a lesson Mrs. Kloc said, “Sitting as you sit with bench so high, the muscles of lumbar vertebrae must be in condition of perpetual spasm. You are certain you are not in severe pain?”

Fjóla thought a moment. She said, “Quite certain.”

“On the whole you rotate nicely. But the move to five finger, here, is not possible. I do not say unsound. This is past unsound.” She gripped Fjóla’s forearm in demonstration. “You have carpal bones that should prevent that motion. You should already be injured. Furthermore, the hours you play are far too many.”

The only way out had been to buy a piano: thus whim with time and effort made fact.

Her memory of the witchlike dealer playing “Clair de Lune” made it seem eventually within her powers, but then she bought a tape of it and listened in the car and discovered that he had played only the first section, and that the middle section required a burbling legato facility she would need twenty years to achieve at this pace.

Six months later, she had it. She had the whole thing.

“You are moving like a tremendous machine,” Mrs. Kloc conceded.

One morning the next winter, Marek shouted from the kitchen, “Fuck these fucking knives. Shit.”

Fjóla did not break off training her mulish finger to make this stupid acciaccatura in the Schumann she was learning. Her attention was a bottomless descent.

“I am overfucked with these clubs you have for knives,” Marek said, coming into the salon with a plate of venison sausage sawn in fat slabs and a bleeding finger in his mouth.

“Let me have some!” she said.

“Of course,” he said in Polish, uncorking his mouth. “It’s for you. I almost died for it. I left half the pepper from the rind on the cutting board because you’re so cheap.”

He looked at the hand. His fat mouth twisted in revulsion. The finger bled, the dark blood shone like melted chocolate. The focus in his eyes drifted. He teetered like a tree in a storm.

“Don’t be dramatic. Give it here,” she said.

He put the dried meat between her teeth and she tore at the sinews with one hand while the other kept on playing. Salt and fat erupted in her mouth. Matter turned to energy by means of pleasure.

Then she heard it, the shadow beat, she had played it, was playing it again — rather her hand played it while the mind pursued its food — a little note, nearly inaudible, succinct but fleeting. There, and gone. She had it, her hand had it. A little note crushed by the big notes around it. Like a chick in a fist.

Mrs. Kloc insisted that Fjóla schedule the next tuning for a lesson day.

“You don’t hear it? Pleek. Agony!”

It was E-flat to Marek’s father, but it was not flat enough.

The old people argued across the echoing salon while the young people, Fjóla and Marek, settled a ponderous pane of beveled plate glass atop a new coffee table. Marek had constructed this table out of the legs of an antique bed and the mullions of a fancy door, all salvaged from a demolition site in the old city where he’d taken side work. Once assembled, the rococo styling of the old wood amid the austerity of her salon made the table look like a child dressed as a silly monarch in a school play.

“The ear does not lie,” Mrs. Kloc said.

“Quite right,” the old man responded.

On the other side of the room, Marek said, “Does it not match the piano? I thought that it would.”

“Of course it does,” Fjóla lied, except, stepping back to look, the Frankenstein table did match the piano. The effect repulsed her.

Her Polish had gotten much better. She understood Mrs. Kloc to say, “No, it was perfect,” and Marek’s father to respond with sudden exasperation and at a tempo Fjóla should not have been able to comprehend, “How do you know what Constantine’s clowns did to it?”

This precipitated a row.

Later, in Krakow, Fjóla was asking Marek about the fight his father had pitched with Mrs. Kloc, which had acquired gratuitous dimensions. “It was a professional disagreement and then — who is Constantine? Your father said his name, and she — I’ve never seen her lose her despot cool before.”

“Okay, but Father apologized.”

“For what? Did he tell you?”

“That was a punch in the kidney to bring up Constantine. Father is often carefuller, but she questioned his pitch! I mean he lost — he did not mean it. He tried to take it back and she did not let him.”

“Who is Constantine?”

“Like you make a joke at my English. And I am hurt. And I let you take back your joke. Humanity. She should let him take it back. But no.”

“But I said who is Constantine?”

“That you bought your piano from him,” Marek said.

“Who — the transport person?”

“What?”

“The owner was some bureaucrat in the transport ministry who left the country.”

“Buy me cheeseburger, please, won’t you?”

“Is it stolen — or looted? I knew it — you people. Why didn’t you tell me? I have to know.”

“You do not have to know, do you?”

In the market where they were walking, she pretended to study an open crate of plums filmed with glaucous wax. “You’re right. I change my mind. I don’t want to know,” she said.

“Guess.”

“Her son,” she blurted.

“Worse.”

“Her boyfriend.”

“Constantine was her bookkeeper,” Marek said. “I suppose he did work maybe for government someplace also. Not for Transport. Maybe in Ministry of Leaving Old Women with Debts all over Krakow. Father always recommends her.”

“So she owes you money, you’re saying.”

“Sweetheart, I want you to buy me a motorcycle. A Yamaha.” He said the word with quiet lust. “I know the model. Say that you will think about it.”

“I’m going to ask you a question. Don’t pretend you don’t understand me. Did I buy Mrs. Kloc’s piano?”

He thought a minute. “Take that back,” he said.

“What.”

“Take it back, that question.”

“Why?”

“Fine — because you should let her have her pride,” he said. “There, I ruined it.”

They bought some onions and pork ribs for a soup. Her parents were visiting. “I like it better with your barley at the end than with your egg dumplings,” she said placatingly.

“Egg has octane — proctane — help me.”

“Protein.”

“You enjoy Mrs. Kloc?”

“Oh, yes. I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t asked.”

“More than me?”

“Funny boy,” she said and patted his X-ray tattoo. It was her favorite part of him to touch. They didn’t have the kind of rapport in which she might have asked him what the tattoo meant or why he’d gotten it. They had the kind in which she gripped it while they were fucking and thereby felt an electric knowledge of death at this moment of utmost life. A fathomless nothing surrounded us, and she could touch it. The disparity between life and death obliterated. Nobody knew that sometimes when she had starved herself to shreds, lightning ran in her veins, she was so alive.

The viscous soup was black as earth: he had roasted the bones before he boiled them. They served it in plastic bowls in the dining room, outfitted with scraps of lumber Marek had knocked together and painted to make a table and chairs. Earlier in the winter he had also found a second bed and mattress, for her parents. Out of consideration for what he imagined were their feelings, Marek did not stay the night but went home to the pallet he used in his father’s attic. He had a key to her house now and came and went as the spirit moved him.

Fjóla was asleep when her mother’s wiredrawn shape appeared in the doorway.

“You have been —”

“May I sleep, Mother?”

“ — you have been practicing?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“We didn’t get to talk just us two without the men.”

“Of course. But nothing about, ‘Your shape was perfect like it was.’ ”

“What? You look,” she said, “strong.”

“None of it, none of it,” Fjóla sputtered.

The sheets were already dampish from her sweating. Her mother stifled a sneeze and got in the bed. “Your father worries,” she said.

“Will you scratch, please?” Fjóla said. “What in the world is the matter with what I’m doing? I want to be good at something. Why does it feel like some moral lapse that everybody else sees but me and I should be ashamed of it?”

“That is a very fine question, and I love you very much,” her mother said. She hummed, scratching Fjóla’s scalp.

Fjóla sniffled.

“He wants almost the same as I do, your father,” her mother said.

“I hope it’s not too much of a burden, my staying here.”

“A burden, why? But what are you doing besides practice? I mean your friend didn’t stay, so I’m assuming —”

“That is none of your business.”

“Okay, but we have to be good animals to be good saints, my darling.”

“You are not fair. I never tried to be a saint.”

In the morning, while the women were having their coffee, Axel Neergaard came in from the snow wearing wool hunting clothes like a petty nobleman from the time of King Christian the Tenth. He had brought fishing gear but knew the property so little that after the whole morning on foot he had failed to find the trout stream he was sure was referenced somewhere in his deed.

For lunch they went to the city. Annelise could not persuade Axel to change out of his squiring outfit. Mud flaked his trouser cuffs.

She was the most beautiful blond woman, Annelise Neergard. She never ate breakfast, but her skin, her hair, everything thrived. She ate when hungry, which was seldom. She was like the Republic of Costa Rica, which had long ago abolished its military: her lack of defenses guaranteed her safety. The Neergaards still owned a beach property there. Yet in her earlobes, in the texture of the skin above her sternum, the first incontestable signs had emerged of the struggle with time, an invisible tide.

“We could be in Rio or Bangkok or San Francisco,” said Annelise, looking up at the shell of a giant tortoise dangling from the rafters. They were at Devil Heaven eating, from hollowed bread bowls, a soup of fermented rye broth with bits of meat floating in it.

Her father slurped with gusto.

Fjóla said, “I know. You’d think history never happened.”

“Do you want them to put it on the menu?” Axel said.

“I mean, but no sign at all, Daddy? Am I missing something?”

“Deportation Memorial Salade Nicoise,” he said.

“Or Malta,” said Annelise. “Why am I feeling Malta? And no, she’s not blaming you, Axel — or capitalism or the World Bank.”

“Honey, I’m sorry, but you don’t remember the milk bars. I was here ten years ago. You had to pay a bribe to get a strawberry — to get the address of the person you had to bribe before he would tell you if he had any strawberries to sell.”

“Darling, you were here with me. I’m the one who paid for the address. Don’t appropriate my anecdote. It is eerie,” she said, turning to Fjóla. “The effacement.”

“You haven’t seen these charming figurines, Daddy, the rabbis with the beards and the noses?”

“Have I?” Axel Neergaard inserted a turnip in his mouth and chewed it.

There was a terrible pause of the kind families abhor and fill with what they consider banalities and others visiting them consider their characteristic genius or corruption. Then Axel Neergaard said, “You seem to have constructed a kind of life here.”

“Speaking of pianos,” her mother interrupted.

“I was not speaking strictly of pianos. I was speaking of —”

“We have found a buyer for the estate,” said Annelise.

“Is this really the time?” Axel said.

“What estate — what are you doing? What have you been up here for? I thought you wanted to be close to me,” Fjóla said.

“We weren’t looking very hard,” Axel said.

“Please don’t be sentimental,” her mother said. “We can get you a Bechstein or whatever the top-of-the-line is these days. Or we can pack up the piano you have now and take it home with us. Don’t do this. Put some iron in your ribs.”

“This isn’t about your investments at all.”

“Please don’t cry,” Axel said.

“Stop making me hide!” Fjóla said.

“Do you think we can have a clear conscience letting you live like this?” said Annelise. “I feel like you’re committed to being a vagrant and I’m paying for your tent and can opener. I won’t have it. Your father won’t have it. Your father loves you.”

“You want to make sure and keep pretending nothing happened. You’re exactly like —” Fjóla waved at the room, the establishment, the signless square outside. She was speaking just loud enough to be heard over the death-metal music coming from behind the bar.

“It is vulgar and supercilious and self-dramatizing to make comparisons like that,” said Annelise. “You mustn’t make comparisons between yourself and big things. My brother did that. Axel, do you remember the poem about how his divorce was like the expulsion of the Germans from Pomerania?”

“What comparison?” Axel said.

“With her —”

“Compared how?”

“With — with what she says happened to her,” said Annelise.

“Ah,” Axel said, releasing a slow, patient, sympathetic sigh.

Annelise lowered her voice, “When she called us in Istanbul. From that hotel.”

“Nothing happened, my flower,” Axel said.

“It didn’t?” Fjóla asked through confused but resilient tears. Her hair was coming down, but she didn’t put it back up.

“Tell her again,” her mother said.

He said with careful force, “Nothing has ever happened.”

“Daddy, I’ve tried as hard as I can.”

“Nothing happened.”

“I mean I’ve tried to push it away. It’s getting better, but I have to stay here. I can’t go back and be with you two the way I was. I felt like a deer in the basement.”

“My flower.”

“Don’t.”

“Darling, fix your hair,” her mother said.

“Don’t touch it, please,” Fjóla said.

“Nothing happened,” her father said. “Nothing has ever happened.”

“It didn’t?”

“No,” he said.

Marek was supposed to meet her for a goodbye drink.

They had always maintained that they were good friends who liked to screw sometimes. Men liked to preserve such treaties and women to undermine them in the direction of love. But unless Fjóla misunderstood her own feelings, the roles in the present case were reversed. Marek wept and said he had taken the demolition jobs in order to save enough to take her away for a weekend to someplace romantic like Vilnius and propose that she should marry him. On hearing this, the iron came into Fjóla’s ribs for real.

“Please don’t be sentimental,” Fjóla said.

He didn’t know the word. Then he did know it and for a moment she avidly prepared herself to be beaten by him at last. He stood — he had never been bigger, they ate so well together — and barreled away past the tenements.

Over the phone she explained to Mrs. Kloc that because she would be leaving the country she would have to end their lessons and that she wanted to give Mrs. Kloc her instrument.

“Why? I don’t want it.”

The response she formed in Danish in her mind — because I want you to have it again — came out of her mouth in French precisely so, except she caught herself in time and did not say the indiscreet word “again.”

“That is not why,” Mrs. Kloc laughed. The laugh was harsh and vengeful. “I said you would fail. To push and push and push. As though everything can be yours, from pushing. And now you have failed. And you are ashamed.”

It was a week before Marek took one of her calls. She wanted to meet and leave things on more friendly terms. “Friendly” wasn’t the right word, but he understood, didn’t he? He said he would think about it and hung up. He called back five minutes later and told her a date and time.

She may have written it down wrong, however there was no doubt they had implicitly agreed to meet at Devil Heaven. Yet after a half hour he hadn’t shown up. After another half hour he still hadn’t shown up. She looked around the many rooms full of the people who might have been her friends. She had drunk a bit too much and headed home.

Fjóla Neergaard was at that time too old to be a girl, too underdeveloped at the hips and bosom to have become an adult, although she was in fact twenty-six years old. Her parents had raised her in a suitcase that went everyplace in the world where bond traders needed a corporation’s finances vetted for incompetence and graft. In general she had owned only what could be folded, stowed, or used up, and had never before the piano bought anything as substantial as a toaster. She would take it with her back to Copenhagen. Or she wouldn’t. The thing itself didn’t matter. She spoke six languages with timid exactitude but her mother tongue with an unplaceable accent. Even in Copenhagen people thought she was a foreigner. She had had no Polish before coming here, but she did have a habit, which often distracted her peace of mind, of eavesdropping and acquiring the rules by which a language she didn’t know could be deciphered from one she did. Who would have thought music was just another language she could pick up as easily as Dutch?

She picked things up in order to put them down again. To have money is to never have to keep anything, except the money.

She drove up the long, dark, country highway in which the headlights of the car were blue and wicked. The car rattled over the rippled pavement in the dip below the farm. She swerved into the drive and nearly smashed into a truck that for some reason was parked there. It was his truck. He had come to plead his case in private, poor boy. And the moment she cut the engine, she heard him crying out for help.

The door of the house was ajar and she could push it open only partway because Marek’s stretched arm on the floor impeded it. The rest of him lay crosswise, suspended in mid-fall along the foyer stairs, with his face pressed to the landing below and her piano on top of him. The rear lobe of the piano was pinning him down between the shoulder blades. In his evident haste he had not removed the legs and lyre post, and a leg had landed on the back of one of his knees. The busted lyre had snapped a vein. His lovely blood soaked the carpet runners. His lungs were straitened and his breathing was shallow and fast. He emitted a piteous, piercing, grotesque sound like the whinnying of a lamed horse.

The carpet came from Tunisia.

“Forgive me,” he gasped at the floor.

The instrument was splayed across the narrow stairway so she could not get around to see how the key block had lodged on the upper steps. The stout wooden rod that usually kept the lid open jutted out and obstructed where she wanted to place her step. She raised her foot till her thigh hung perpendicular to the rest of her, braced herself against the wall, raised her foot higher, and pounded down with all her weight, smashing the rod in half.

The machine inched farther down the stairs.

“Where I am?” he said. “I can’t see you anymore!”

Fjóla’s feet were now free to straddle the stairs at either side of his head. She bent low, gripping the edges of the piano where it dug into the straps of the truss across his back. His shirt was wet with sweat and he smelled of beer and Marek.

One does not use the back but the legs, she had gathered from watching him — the thighs and hams, all the abdominal muscles that attached to the pelvis.

The knees came forward, the pelvis down, down further. Then the shoulders started coming up.

The whole apparatus of her was in motion, free, and constrained by her adversary, this weight, the big thing beneath her that was coming up, as she was coming up. When it moved, she moved.

A deep long breath soughed into him, then out, and he cried, “Don’t leave me here!” in delirium, under her hips.

When she moved, it moved. A sound like fever humming the brain when the dampers fell off all the strings. Nothing of her own was involved. She did not will or want. She did. An ever-present power gushing out of the earth, into her feet, right through the top of her head, burning her up like a wick, turning her into nothing but heat.

A queasy sneering sound, as when a bow is dragged the wrong way up a violin string. A sound coming out of her hands — a sound of the thing slipping out of her hands. But not all the way. Not yet. She had intervened in an equilibrium and destabilized it. And the power came up cockeyed through her hips now, so that she was leaning a little backward. If the piano fell out of her hands at this point it would come down on the back of Marek’s stippled neck and snap it.

Her hands, between her spread legs, were as high as her hip pockets. She needed a few more inches before the lyre post would free his leg.

I have nothing left, she thought, and I will use it.

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’s novel The End (Graywolf) was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. His story “The Hidden Person” appeared in the January 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Salvatore Scibona:

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