My mother was a pianist, once. She lived alone, on the second floor of a grey apartment building perched on the edge of Seoul. It was just out of the city, because it was all she could afford, and a 40 minute car ride to her job selling sushi and tea to tourists and suit-clad workers at an art gallery that overlooked the skyline. She didn’t have much. Just a few memories packed into boxes. A gold picture frame and a yellowing photo of her parents on their wedding day; a blue teddy tattered and worn from years of love and countless washes, and a box of crinkled sheets. Pages and pages of inky notes printed onto staves, musical theory and history, composers’ biographies.
Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninov. All in her handwriting, from the carefully rounded letters of her youth to the impatient scrawlings of adulthood. Her box of memories. In dusted corners and kitchen counters: a toaster, a microwave, a couple of mugs and mismatching forks and a couch – the flowery loveseat from the ‘50s that her mother had insisted she keep. Tickets, receipts, arts and crafts she’d forgotten the meaning of but knew were sentimental. It was a modest beginning to her life. And although she was alone, she had with her the most important possession of all. Her piano.
In those days, she lived for its sounds. The sound of wood on steel, somehow beautiful and soaring, melancholy and rich like butter. A forest, an ocean of music – sounds she could create with the elegant tools of her hands, her fingers, nimbly cascading up and down the ivory keys like a river, flowing past rocks in a gorge full after a night’s rain.
She was the music. The sounds were nothing without her, and she was equally lost without them. It didn’t matter that the walls peeled with age, the wooden beams were damp and rotten, the windows dusty and thin. The piano transformed the small apartment into a thick forest of untouched green, full of tree trunks veiny with life, singing birds, soft green moss that felt like fur.
The family lunches, the recitals at the National Opera, the evening practices after a quiet dinner, with just the three of us. My sister and I motionless, mesmerised by her magic that seemed to command the air.
But she doesn’t play anymore. Not since the accident six years ago – the one that killed my sister. That room in the corner of the house is closed, cold and forgotten like a dusty attic of unwanted things, photographs, memories. Painful memories. Sometimes I see her come out of the room, gently closing the door behind her, her eyes heavy with regret and nostalgia. A sad smile, the kind that holds more heartache than tears would.
And it makes me think of those carefree afternoons laying under the body of the piano, gazing at the marble wood and the thick brass strings, the hard edges and curves of its underside, basking in its full, ringing melodies. Like a warm bath of sound, reverberating through my body, my heart and soul expanding and soaring at every dynamic, every beautiful harmony or chord, at the shuffling whoosh of the pedal muffling the hammers as her foot pressed down. Beautiful sounds. And knowing they were crafted by the person I loved the most in the world was the most beautiful thing I ever knew.
How I wish to hear the Moonlight Sonata or Fur Elise on her fingers again. But I know it is a time and a part of her that is withered and tired. Tender, bruised. Its funny how the most vibrant light can be snuffed out so easily, so permanently, and how one broken string can break it all. And nothing can fix it. I long for my sister. I long for my mother and the music that brought her alive.
But now, lightly running my fingers over the glossy wood of the lonely beast, I smile, grateful, because although the wick of her candle is snuffed out, at least she burned.
disclaimer: this is a work of fiction, partly inspired by ‘The Forest of Wool and Steel’ by Natsu Miyashita