Monday, June 2, 2008
Dodo, Chapter Four, The Missing Fingers
Mother's father, Grandfather Meyer, Mr. Meyer, as he was known to all the children, was a professional photographer. He was well respected in his profession and many a prominent citizen would go out of their way to visit him in his large house in Zweibrucken, sitting for their picture on a tall, austere chair he referred to as “the throne”. His studio, a stone building nestled under the wide canopy of an old tree at the back of his garden, was filled with all manner of then-modern equipment; great bottles of smelly chemicals and metal boxes perched on tall, spidery legs, things that readily captured the imagination of a young boy in the late 1950's. If allowed, I would have happily spent the entirety of my visits with Grandfather Meyer in that dark, cool studio, but that was before the piano arrived.
A silent totem of mystery, the mammoth, old black upright all but covered one wall of his front room. It mainly served as a mantle for a row of yellowed photographs placed in stern-looking frames, each an official portrait of a baron or baroness or some other wealthy German, all prized clients. Going to grandfather's was a special event, each visit offering me an opportunity to stand before the monolithic machine (never once having heard it played, I hardly thought of it as a musical instrument). Even on my toes, my chin barely reached the lid, itself a massive, seemingly impenetrable form, under which lay keys I had only ever seen on one occasion.
It was during a party for my Uncle Alder, who had just received a medal of commendation from the local government, something to do with getting safe drinking water to rural areas (to this day I've never quite understood what his job was). I recall this because everyone made a special toast with a tall glass of water, Helmut and I spilling ours as we raced to finish up first.
Uncle Alder didn't look anything like father. He was very thin, with oversized hands he always kept hidden in a pair of stylish leather driving gloves, which I always thought was odd, being that he didn't drive. His eyes were wide and heavy-lidded, outlined by long, bristly sideburns, giving him the appearance of an insect. He was three years older than father, but their relationship would have one believing it was the other way around.
Grandfather's house was full of guests, all talking, drinking and smoking, the things I'd learned to associate with adult gatherings. Wanting to avoid the teasing of Helmut and my older cousins, I'd positioned myself before the piano, offering my back to the festivities, standing so close I could feel my knees touching the quilted bench kept underneath. I stared, transfixed by the brilliant array of keys, and the lid, pushed open to reveal a wonderfully ornate music stand. I was pondering why it was open, having been told more than once how it “upset” Uncle Alder, never understanding why. I was about to brush one of the white ivories when I suddenly felt two firm hands slip under my arms, hoisting me into the air. It was Uncle Alder.
“You know that's quite forbidden, Totty!” he declared, in a deep and rich voice, one that belied his slight build. “Have you not been told the tale of the Fehlend Betasten?”
Wriggling in his clutches, his long, hard thumbs hurting as they pressed up under my suspenders, I crooked my neck, glancing back down upon the keys, which now looked like a field of black and white stripes. “No, Uncle Alder, I haven't,” I replied, in an awed whisper. I was lying. Uncle Alder had told me the gruesome tale more times than I could remember, but I never grew tired of hearing it, especially the way he presented it, pausing at the moments before the truly terrifying parts, his big eyes looking ready to pop from his head.
“You haven't?” he answered, in mock surprise. “You mean to say you do not know that all pianos, even your grandfather's, once had only white keys?”
“No black ones on Mr. Meyer's?” I asked, with an innocence every bit as staged.
He shook his head slowly, a grave look etched upon his lean face. “No,” he breathed, bringing me so close I could smell the brandy on his lips. “Not a single, little one – every key was a brilliant white, Totty, as white as the pillows in Heaven.”
“Then why does Mr. Meyer's have black ones?” I asked, continuing my charade, dangling my arm, tracing over the keys with my finger, pretending to count them.
Uncle Alder smiled, his big grey eyes all but disappearing behind thick folds of skin. “Ah, but you see, my boy, this was the doing of the wicked children, two brothers and two sisters, who had disobeyed their mother and had lifted the lid of the family piano and were running their tender little fingers all over the shiny white keys. They were being so naughty and were so lost in the sweet cacophony of their disobedience they didn't hear their father just outside the front door, stomping his muddy boots on the paving stones – stomp –”
“Stomp - stomp - STOMP!” I squealed, forgetting my supposed ignorance.
“He stomped so hard he shook the entire house,” continued Uncle Alder, ignoring my outburst. “And – SLAM – down came the heavy lid – right upon those bad little children!”
“What happened to their fingers, Uncle Alder?” I gasped, hiding my own in my mouth.
“Why, they came right off – severed at the final joint – trapped shut beneath the lid, along with four of their nasty little thumbs. And no matter how hard their mother and father tried, they just couldn't lift it. They called a neighboring farmer from his field to help, but he had no more luck than they. The farmer then fetched two builders who tried but failed as well. It seemed that nothing would open the lid. The poor children cried and cried, their bleeding hands all wrapped up in their mother's apron.”
“I don't want them to cry anymore, Uncle Alder!” I suddenly pleaded, my eyes beginning to tear themselves, but Uncle Alder seemed not to notice.
“The doctor might stitch their fingers back on, but they are lost in the piano, declared the farmer. Perhaps we could chop it apart with an axe, suggested one of the builders. Never, said the father angrily, this is an heirloom, from my father's father's father it has been handed down to me, I will not see it destroyed!”
Uncle Alder was now only a watery shape before me. Warm tears raced down my cheeks.
“But, what of my dear children, cried the mother, her apron now all but red,” continued Uncle Alder, lost in his story. “What futures will they have without fingers? They will be beggars - or worse!”
“What - what's worse than a beggar, Uncle Alder?” I choked.
But he no longer seemed to be addressing me. His eyes were cast to the ceiling. “So be their fate, hissed the heartless father, stomping off, followed by the farmer and the builders, leaving the poor mother and her children.”
“Never to see their precious fingers again?” I finished.
“Not until the day a traveling player came passing by, on his way to a grand recital in Stuttgart,” announced Uncle Alder, giving me a little shake. “This master pianist, seeing the fingerless children sitting by the roadside, took them to the house, where their mother showed him the terrible piano, long sealed shut with the children's blood. The pianist sat down and removed his satin gloves. Running his beautifully-formed hands across the lid, it all at once sprung open, revealing thirty six little fingers – lodged between the white keys – each as black as coal!” I began to sob. “And the master pianist began to play,” Uncle Alder exclaimed. “He played as never had been done before! A rhapsodic miracle it was, a sound that traveled up to the angels on high!”
“Alder! Hush!” declared a familiar voice. “Look at what you've done!”
It was mother. I felt her warm hands taking me. Rubbing at my burning eyes, I tried hard to stifle my flowing tears, but the tale of The Missing Fingers always got the better of me. It was why I loved it so.
“There, there, Totty, it's going to be alright now. Your uncle should know better.”
Looking rather sheepish, Uncle Alder made a dismissive motion with his hand and excused himself. As mother dabbed my eyes with her blouse I watched him amble over to where father and Grandfather Meyer stood, both with drinks in hand, cigars blazing. He seemed to hesitate before them. I saw father turn, taking in Uncle Alder with one of his dark scowls. He then glanced across the room, seeing me, my face still flushed with tears. He frowned, avoiding mother's eye, quickly turning back to the others. Grandfather Meyer reached out and gave Uncle Alder a little push and father began to laugh. Father then dipped a hand into his glass and withdrew it, flicking his drink into Uncle Alder's face, moving his fingers across the air as if he was playing a piano. He and Grandfather Meyer both now laughed, sharp and loud, great puffs of smoke rising between them.
“Momma?” I asked, as I watched Uncle Alder shuffle off, looking defeated. “When does Mr. Meyer play his piano?”
She smiled, pressing my face to her. “Your grandfather is not a player, Totty. You know the piano was your uncle's.”
“Uncle Alder's?” I murmured, things I thought I understood suddenly not seeming to make any sense. “Why is it in Mr. Meyer's house?”
Mother stroked my head, speaking extra softly into my ear. “Your uncle doesn't play anymore, Totty, not since the accident.”
I glimpsed back towards the piano. It looked blacker than it ever had, filling one side of the room, like an entrance to some secret tunnel. Though just a boy, I was beginning to recognize the terrible truth that lived within adult whispers. Too young to absorb it, but old enough to carry their careless comments with me, I was left with bits and pieces, a monstrous patchwork reality, stitched together with the overactive mind of a child. It wasn't until some fifteen years later, when the telegram arrived in America, informing us that Uncle Alder had died, that I learned the truth. Or, at least, the only truth I would ever discern.
Uncle Alder's indeterminable profession had merely been a resource to avoid poverty. His real career had been as a pianist, a classically-trained auteur of some renown, one who was destined for a life of the appreciated performer, before his brother, my father, bullied him into a task too dangerous.
Our little house in Germany had a well, located beneath the garden. Heavy rain often caused it to back up, flooding the bathroom and kitchen. Mother wanted us to join the city lines, but it would have required almost a quarter mile of digging and pipe laying, and a cost father was determinedly against. Thus, each great storm resulted in father calling Uncle Alder over to help him clear the clogged line. This involved lifting a heavy iron cover that sat a few feet under the ground. Father, dismissing his brother's strength, always insisted on holding the cover, as Alder lay across the opening, reaching into the open piping to pull free the backed-up waste. Uncle Alder had resignedly performed this unwelcome chore on a good half dozen occasions, getting filthy, but otherwise unscathed, until the day tragedy struck. It appeared in the form of a rat, one that suddenly scampered across Alder's arms as he was clearing the way, causing him to cry out. Father panicked, letting go of the cover, just as Uncle Alder was drawing himself up. The heavy iron plate came down upon Alder's hands, crushing them. As mother told it, at the wake, sitting before an uneaten sandwich, Uncle Alder never again touched a piano, for years experiencing anxiety even when he'd come close to one. “I know he blamed father for what happened, he didn't want to ever let it be over. He stewed in it, Totty, and your father did too. They both suffered for it.” She said this, picking at her sandwich, tears lining her face. I tried to make this fit with what I'd witnessed all my life, the terrible animosity between the two men, Uncle Alder's fearful regard of father and father's callous lack of respect for his older brother. In doing this I saw, for the first time, that, as much as I loathed father's actions, there was some truth in what mother said. Both had suffered, both had carried the weight of that fateful day, one losing his dream, the other his grip, the fragile hold he'd had on himself.