The Poet’s Piano

A short story about a secret violon d’ingres. First published in the University of Toronto’s Crumpled Paper Magazine, 2008

“You know the pianist?” people would say. “He’s your uncle?” and then: “What’s he like?”

What was I supposed to say?

“Yes,” I would answer brightly. “He’s great.”

My uncle was brilliant. Wherever he went, people flocked to hear him play. When he touched the keys, reviewers wrote glowingly of diamonds of harmony and resonance, and rivers of rippling sound.

I was eleven or twelve when he came to town. I remember the excitement of being there— the piano a few steps away, the stage lights bright in my eyes. I had pictures and articles about him all over my room. And now the most famous pianist in the world was here to play. My uncle.

He came onstage, taking long-legged strides to the piano, acknowledging the applause with a broad grin. Before his long fingers touched the piano I remember the brief moment of silence; so heavy with expectation, I could hardly breathe with the weight of it. He played. It was like drowning in flowers.

Afterwards, he came home with us. I sat in the back of the car in the darkness, scribbling in my notebook, driven to inspiration by the piano. I remember it was almost as if I was enchanted.

The pianist my uncle sat at our kitchen table and sipped a cup of late night tea with my parents. I watched from a distance, shy, but desperate to watch this man- to observe his every move, to catch a fraction of his sparkle.

But where was the magician? The man that sat at our table was quiet, brown-haired; ordinary. He made awkward conversation about boring things and he never once looked my way. With all my will, I begged him to suddenly open up, to say something wonderful.

He was nothing; he was empty. My disappointment was almost physically painful.

He made his excuses and stood to go.

“Stop skulking and get your uncle his jacket,” my mother said and I left the room, glad to be out of his presence. As I was getting the jacket and his scarf out the closet tears were beginning to fill my eyes. When he followed me into the hall, I was furious at him for making the effort.

“Is this yours?” he asked. “Your mother says you write a lot of them.”

He had my poem— the one I had written for a famous pianist in another universe.

“No,” I said.

“Oh, well, my mistake.” He didn’t smile. “May I have it?”

“It’s not mine,” I said.

“I’ll take it then,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

We stood for a moment, me glaring at him with all the force of my new hatred; him looking back with his empty, expressionless face as if nothing in the world meant anything to him.

“Here,” he said suddenly. “For the poet.” He unpinned his trademark white flower from his jacket and gave it to me and then, except for Christmas updates, he disappeared from the house and from our lives.

When, fifteen years later, he died suddenly, we were the only living relatives of the great pianist.

“You knew the pianist?” people said. “He was your uncle? What was he like?”

I never knew him, I answered in my heart. He was nothing. I threw away his flower as soon as he left the house.

“Yes. He was great,” I replied.

My mother said I should go to his funeral, since I was in town. But what had my uncle been to me, to anyone, but secretive and withdrawn? In the end, it was only politeness that made me cancel a Shelley seminar I was supposed to give, and go.

The funeral was reminiscent of earlier, grander times. There were hundreds of people dressed in black who attended the service. There was a large choir that solemnly sang Mozart’s requiem.

White flowers filled the church, overflowing.

Being a member of the family I was seated close to the coffin, and from where I sat and stood, I could see the still face of my famous uncle, and the long fingers that had enchanted millions that rested on his chest—both totally unfamiliar.

I was a stranger at my own uncle’s funeral, among a crowd of adorers who had listened to his music every day, watched him, studied with him.

Waited in vain for him to open up to the world and compose something.

“He truly was the pianist,” said a fellow musician, when we stood by the grave, the sun in our eyes. “We knew him through his music, and we will remember him for it.”

I would not cry for him.

After the funeral they asked me, as family, to look over the house. I could see the jealousy in the eyes of my uncle’s devotees as a lawyer handed me the keys to the pianist’s secrets. I would have passed them on to anyone else who asked, but no one did and so I drove up alone.

The house was not what I expected, although I was not sure what I had. It was modest, but with expensive views over the city. The garden was filled with the pianist’s white flowers.

I would look quickly, and then leave. There was no reason for me to stay very long.

But when I put the key in the lock and the door opened as it had countless times for my uncle, something made me step softly. Inside, I listened for the ghosts of a dead man’s music. I strained, and tiptoed, but all I could hear was the passing of cars outside on the road.

At the end of the hall, the studio door was closed. A rim of golden afternoon sunlight around the door dimly illuminated the hall side of the hallway.

I did the rounds. There were dishes stacked neatly on the rack in the kitchen, and a leafy plant on the windowsill, well looked after. In the living room the television remote was nestled in a crack on the sofa. Upstairs by my uncle’s neatly-made bed there was an alarm clock set for eight thirty and a glass still half-filled with water.

My old disbelief and anger came back, washing away apathy. How could this be the house of a genius?

I left the studio for last, not knowing quite how to just open the door and go in. He had kept his practice room secret for his entire career, out of the sight of the public, curious journalists and even his students.

And then, suddenly, I was caught between the old hatred and the even older hope.  Was this room the answer to the question of musical brilliance, the absent spark? Now, facing the door, it meant as much today as it had to my eleven year old self.

I longed for it all to come pouring out at me. Breathless with expectation, I opened the door.

The afternoon sunlight was very bright after the dimness of the rest of the house. Barely able to see, I went to the windows, closed the blinds and turned back to look at the studio.

There was the piano—a walnut grand—standing in the centre of the room, the only piece of furniture apart from one wall full of bookshelves stacked with neatly organized music.

The rest of the room looked like the aftermath of a madman’s tempest; I thought for a second that the window had been left open and someone had ransacked the room, or that a gust of the wind had scattered sheaves of music all over the room, but the windows were shut.

There was paper everywhere, tacked to the walls, all over the piano, among the strings, on the floor in stacks and piles. The pieces seemed to centre at the piano, as if the great instrument had spun around and around and let them all out in a great white whirlwind. On behalf of the world, my heart leapt; had he been composing? Had this great man’s secret been that he was a composer, after all?

I drew closer to the paper set at the piano, where the music should stand, and I saw immediately that it was not music—it was scribbled writing— it was, unmistakably- poetry.

The room was filled with poems. Some were long, some unfinished like the one on the piano, some short and staccato. Every single piece of paper held handwritten verse, the words placed on the page as if my uncle had known exactly where they should go before he wrote them down. It was not the work of an amateur.

I lost hours in that room, reading poem after poem. I sat on my uncle’s piano bench and devoured the words, swallowed and overwhelmed by the skill and sensitivity of the writer.

My uncle, the author.

Had anyone really known my uncle? This man, the greatest pianist in the world, was, in the end, not a pianist at all. His heart and soul were instead inscribed in this great pantheon of words barely contained in a backroom studio. How could hundreds of people; his colleagues, his students, his family, have missed this?

How could all this be kept inside a man? It must surely spill over…

The doorbell rang and dazed, I went to answer it.

It was a man in a grey suit carrying a briefcase. He stared at me, even-eyed and expressionless. “Are you the niece?”

I nodded.

“I am your uncle’s lawyer,” he said gravely. “I am very sorry for your loss. I am instructed to give this to you only, as per my client’s will. I was advised that I would find you here.”

“What is it?” I asked, taking the envelope. My uncle’s name was printed on the front.

“The deed to this house and its entire and complete contents,” said the lawyer, his eyes as quiet and grey as my uncle’s. There had been a time when I would have hated him as much as I had hated my uncle. I knew better a little better now.

“Thank you,” I said, standing on the threshold of the house as the lawyer returned to his car and drove away without another word.

… but of course it had spilled over: into his piano, into the sparkling dewdrops that were his music, into a single white flower worn over his heart. Had he heard melody when he played, or poetry?

In the hours I spent in the studio that afternoon, with the sun slowly slanting across the walnut, I read only a fraction of his work. Yet, in that time, I got to know my uncle far better than I think anyone had ever known him.

I could imagine him now, the quiet, reticent, brown-haired man who had drank tea at my kitchen table, seated at this piano bench and playing and playing and then pausing for a moment to write the words that flowed from the music, and then playing once again.

I opened the envelope. Inside, there was the deed and something else, something wrinkled and old, scrawled in a child’s handwriting.

It was my poem.

I thought of the flower I had thrown away all those years ago. I thought of my uncle marching onto the stage, a wide grin on his face, the audience beaming blindly back.

I felt the weight of the expectation, and I felt the guilt; his and my own.

I wept for him, then, there among his life’s work.

The publisher I approached with the first set of poems was thrilled. “The Pianist’s Poems!” she said immediately, but I knew it was the other way around. This was not the work of a brilliant pianist, but the work of a brilliant poet.

The cover of the book was a piano crowded with white flowers that flooded out over the keys and the strings and onto the floor around in a great, snowy swirl. We called it The Poet’s Piano.