By Nancy Machlis Rechtman
Her heart pounded against the walls of her chest, echoing throughout her body. Her head was filled with the staccato of snare drums. Clara looked down at her hands. Her hands – the one gift that couldn’t be taken away from her. Her hands – the hands that were about to play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor in front of a crowd of five hundred people. Steady, regal, her hands. She took a deep breath.
Years of practice had brought her here, to the crowning glory of her twenty-four years. She had played in recitals for twenty or thirty people at Miss Wertmeir’s Music Studio. She had dreamed of playing the Symphony Hall since she started taking piano lessons at the age of seven. Her mother had felt that music lessons in such hard times was an extravagance, but her father, her wonderful Poppy, insisted that beauty should not be sacrificed for economics. After all, he had said, slipping his hand around his wife’s waist, they can take things away from us, but not Clara’s hands, not the beauty those hands can produce. So, her mother gave in, pinching her husband’s cheek in resignation and sighed that she could probably take in some extra mending work to make ends meet. As it was, Clara’s father was working two jobs, but music was his life. He owned a small music store downtown, then spent his nights working at a nearby nightclub. And he expected great things from his daughter, his Clara.
Much to her mother’s surprise (having only given in to her husband to keep peace in the family), Clara had a real talent for the piano and picked up the ability to read music and play back anything Miss Wertmeir played for her effortlessly. She quickly tired of the simple exercises Miss Wertmeir gave her the first few months and pushed incessantly for more complex and challenging works. Miss Wertmeir soon realized that Clara was a brilliant meteor far above the dim talents of her other students, and began teaching Clara works by the masters, bringing out her star pupil’s best abilities. While Clara enjoyed the challenge of each of the great masters, she particularly loved Rachmaninov. Not only for the beauty and passion of the music, but also for the fact that it took her forever to play his works without making any mistakes. There always seemed to be a section of each work which toyed with her fingers, enticed them to trip over each other just when she thought she would make it through without a mistake. And so, she’d start again, over and over, for that was the only way with Rachmaninov.
Clara practiced two to three hours a day. When she came home from school, she wanted to run straight to the piano, but her mother sternly insisted that Clara do her homework before any practicing. Her mother also fretted about the fact that Clara didn’t seem to have any friends and didn’t seem to have any concern about that fact. Clara told her mother she didn’t need friends. The girls at school were too immature to understand a passion like hers – half of them didn’t even know who Mozart and Beethoven were and they looked at Clara strangely if she mentioned them. Music was enough to fill her life, she assured her mother.
The years went by and while times were still hard, Clara’s father managed to buy tickets now and again for concerts at Symphony Hall. Clara’s mother clucked over the extravagance, but she did wear her best dress when they went. Clara would sit, leaning forward in her seat, barely breathing with the exquisite anticipation of what she was about to hear and experience. The house lights would dim, the spotlight would shine on the piano, and Clara would be transported to another world – a world of light and stars and yearnings that could only be expressed without words, in music. This was the language that she spoke, that she understood. And one day it would be her up there, lit up on the stage like an angel in a beautiful flowing white gossamer gown, transfixing hundreds of people with one stroke of her fingers. That was her destiny, she was sure
And so it happened, one week after her twenty-fourth birthday, that Clara was standing backstage, awaiting the arrival of her lifelong dream, the culmination of all she had worked for. She knew this would be the only time she would ever get to perform in public on a scale of this magnitude since she was set to marry Jacob Yanowitz the following May. And Jacob loved Clara dearly – so dearly that he had asked her to play her music only for him once they were wed. Clara had agreed, since she knew that wifely duties, obedience, and motherhood would be expected of her as part of the bargain. She knew Jacob was a good man who would try to make her happy. And, after all, she had dreamed of playing the Symphony Hall once. Just one time, and that dream was about to come true.
Clara’s parents were sitting proudly in the front row, with Jacob sitting next to Clara’s father. Clara got the cue to walk out onto the stage. She floated towards the magnificent Steinway, uncertain if the loud noise enveloping her was the applause of the audience or the pounding in her head. She sat on the stool and placed her fingers over the keyboard. She was going to play some classical and modern pieces for the first half of the program, pieces which she never had any trouble with and which would please the audience. But the second half of the program was reserved for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, a piece which had always seemed to confound her. That was exactly why she had chosen it. It was a piece that she loved, and she mastered most of it with time. But when she got to the third movement, towards the finale, she often played way too fast and found her fingers tripping over each other. She had played this concerto over and over, trying to keep her fingers under control, but perfection eluded her. Today was the day she was determined for perfection to arrive.
There was a collective holding of breath as Clara’s fingers remained poised in mid-air, then the release as she became one with the keyboard. Not one mistake was made in the entire first half of the program which included Chopin’s Polainaise in A-flat Major and Gershwin’s Concerto in F. And there would be no intermission, so she would have to go right into the Rachmaninov concerto after Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Emotions and dreams danced through the air on the tips of her fingers, weaving through Symphony Hall and challenging the audience to feel, to dare, to go beyond the ordinary. And Clara was their master for this one night, taking them on journeys that no one had ever quite taken them on in the same way. It was a night of promise, a night like no other night. And it was wonderful. Then, it was time. All that had come before was flexing, a wonderful exercise, but now came the challenge of her lifetime, this Rachmaninov to be conquered. Her throat tightened, the roar in her head returned, but her hands remained steady. And she began. Slowly the music encircled the hearts and minds of those in the Hall – Clara was Mistress of the Spirits. Her fingers were one with the keyboard. She was not guiding them, it was the music living through her hands. And all that it took to make this night perfect, the triumph she could carry with her forever, was conquering the last movement – no mistakes. Clara took a deep breath and her fingers swooped down onto the keys, dancing to the message of a master a world away, yet alive in this hall. And suddenly she was at the end of the piece, she had made it. This would be the most cherished moment of her life. The crowd roared with approval and Clara stood up. It was over. And she smiled.
There was an urgent wail, lonely and sad. The line went flat.
“Doctor!” the young woman cried, grabbing her grandmother’s arm.
The doctor came running in to the hospital room, along with two nurses. He checked for Clara’s pulse and breathing, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sarah, but her heart has finally given out. She asked for no extraordinary measures to be taken. She’s had a long, hard battle, but she can now rest in peace.”
Sarah stroked Clara’s hand gently, tears slowly dropping onto the white sheet that covered Clara’s frail body like rain on snow.
“My grandmother was a great woman,” Sarah said, her voice trembling. “She’s the one who got me started playing the piano. She loved music more than anything. She could have been a world-class pianist if she had been born in another time, you know. I owe everything to her.”
“Mrs. Yanowitz was quite a woman, I know. She’s been my patient for many years and I got to know her quite well,” the doctor said. “You have no idea how difficult these last few years have been on her and what a hard battle she’s fought. But now she’s at peace. Look at her face, Sarah. Just before her heart stopped, she smiled.”
“I wonder what she saw,” Sarah said through her tears.
“That, we’ll never know,” the doctor answered.
Nancy Machlis Rechtman has had poetry published in Literary Yard, Paper Dragon, and Page & Spine, a short story published in Academy of the Heart and Mind, short stories published in Highlights Magazine for Children, along with stories published in several other children’s magazines. Nancy has also had several children’s plays and a musical both produced and published. Nancy wrote freelance Lifestyle stories for a local newspaper, and she was the copy editor for another local paper. Nancy writes a humorous blog called Inanities at https://nancywriteon.wordpress.com/ .
One thought on “She Smiled”
Touched and enjoyed reading the story. Thank you so much for sharing.