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The Ghosts of the Composers


After the wedding, Leif could not bring himself to sit down to the piano as he used to do every day. It would be devastating if Rebecca saw what happened to him when he played. When she went for a run or rode her bicycle to the market and he was home alone, he could practice. Then she would not know that when he played, his eyes cried a torrent of tears or that his heart stopped and started twenty thousand times instead of merely beating. She would not be frightened by the ghosts of the composers that circled the baby grand piano as he conjured them with his fingers. Chopin was his favorite.

They discussed getting rid of the piano. It took up valuable space in the house, and soon there would be children running around. A fine piano was not practical. Leif did not object. He could find some other means of catharsis—going to the opera or watching Mexican soaps, perhaps.

The day when he came home from work and found the piano gone, he stopped, staring at the empty place on the floor. The movers had removed the piano at Rebecca's direction. Sunset glowing through the window illuminated the place on the hardwood where the instrument had stood.

That night Leif could not sleep. After eating a sandwich, he found himself standing in the middle of the empty room. His itching fingers played the air. He hummed a nocturne.

Chopin and Liszt appeared at his elbows. As he continued to play, they were joined by Mozart, Bach, and even Rachmaninoff, although Leif had never mastered anything of his. They smiled tenderly, exchanging looks of pride and love as he played. When he could play no longer, his throat choked with sobs so he could not hum a note, the ghosts of the composers offered him handkerchiefs as thin as bridal veils. He could not accept: his hand passed right through.

"I'm sorry," he said, looking each spirit in the eye for perhaps the first time. "It was my wife's decision to get rid of the piano."

"We forgive her," the ghosts said in their various languages. He understood.

Chopin began to cough, and Liszt held to his mouth one of the diaphanous handkerchiefs. Chopin had died of consumption.

"Can I get you anything?" Leif asked.

The coughing fit continued, blood spots freckling the handkerchief. The spots were black, the blood already dried. Finally, Chopin could speak. "Thank you for your kindness. There is only one thing we require. You are not the only one who needs catharsis."

Rebecca got up when she heard the TV. Her husband was sniffling while watching a Mexican soap in the den. Someone was in a coma and a beautiful young woman was spending an inordinate amount of time crying about it in high-def. "May I join you?" Rebecca asked. She did not wait for a response, but sat down right in Rachmaninoff's lap. Rachmaninoff was sniffling, too, holding a filmy white handkerchief to his eyes.

"I couldn't sleep," Leif said.

Notes from the Author
I loved writing this story because I identified closely with Lief as a creative person who feels misunderstood. The way that the idea came to me was unusual for me. I was sitting in my living room, staring at the blank screen of my laptop, knowing I wanted to write a magical realism story. What would be the conflict? That's always a good place to start. So I looked around and there was the piano. No, it's not a beautiful grand piano like Lief's in my story, but I knew instantly that a piano could cause conflict. I began imagining ways that that could play out. I say this is an unusual way for an idea to come to me because it wasn't a plot or a character but an object that got me started. As for the magical realism element, I am a devoted lover of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and works by Italo Calvino and others in that genre. Magical realism isn't necessarily "magic." It's freed imagination. It allows for possibility in the very mundane real world. I can't think of a better reason to read.