The day after Lester died, Emma heard music.
Her first thought was that it was pretty, but before she could decide why it was pretty, she realized how extraordinary it was just to hear music. The old, untuned piano had sat silently in the day room for the entire seven years she had worked there, and never once had anyone struck two consecutive tuneful notes on it. It was just where David sat.
He had been eight when Emma came to work there, and already a resident for three years. He spent every day sitting at the piano, not touching it, never trying the notes, not seeing anything. Just sitting, staring at the window beyond the closed case of the instrument. Mary Ann, the Supervising Nurse, said that when he first discovered the piano, he had played every note, from lowest to highest, slowly, deliberately, one time each and one after the other, as if memorizing their sound. He would take a seat there early each morning, and strike the lowest note, then the next, and the next, and when after several long minutes he finally reached the top, he would start over at the bottom, again and again, all day long, until at last Lester put a stop to it.
Lester had lived at the hospital for longer than anyone could remember. He alternated between sitting in an upholstered chair in the day room, muttering things no one understood, and shouting profanities and curses at his fellow residents, the nurses, the attendants, the walls, the furniture. And one day, about the time Emma first came to work there, Lester, who had been sitting in his chair muttering, stood and began cursing the light fixtures on the ceiling, then strode purposefully to the piano and slammed the lid down on David’s hand. Mary Ann said it broke a bone just above the left index finger.
David hadn’t touched the keys since that day. Instead, he would hold his finger over each key in turn, hovering in the air, as if he had struck it, as if he heard the vibrations of the string die away. His right foot would rise and fall on one of the pedals, relentlessly, but to no effect except the sound of something moving inside. He did this every day, all day; and then, for no reason, about three years ago he stopped. He spent each day after that still at the piano, but just sitting, hands in his lap, staring out the window, or with eyes closed, staring at something within himself.
He never spoke. No one in the hospital had ever heard his voice. He never cried, or laughed, never made a sound, never even produced the incomprehensible sounds so common among the hospital’s residents. He submitted to being dressed and undressed and bathed and fed by the attendants, but in unbroken silence. He could hear well enough, of that they were sure, and he understood them when they spoke to him. They knew that, because they would remind him to go to the bathroom, and he would go. When they told him it was time for lunch, he would follow the others to the dining room and sit, placid, while each spoon- or fork-ful was brought to his mouth. If no one fed him, he simply sat. If they remembered to tell him he was finished, he would go back to the piano and sit for the rest of the day. If they forgot, he would sit in the dining room until someone noticed him and told him he could leave. If they gave him water he drank it; if they didn’t, he did without.
He had been a beautiful young child when Emma first came, and it had pained her to imagine the sadness of his life, being lived out in such a strange madness. His blond straight hair, his smooth pale skin, his green-blue unseeing eyes. And in the years since she had come to the hospital, David had grown into a handsome young man of fifteen, almost sixteen, existing in silence in his room and the day room and the dining room and the bathroom, and in his own closed mind.
Doctors came and examined him from time to time, and postulated theories, and made recommendations and wrote prescriptions and ordered treatments, but it never made a difference. Oh, a drug might make him sleep more, or less, and one had made him sway back and forth, but nothing ever changed the way he behaved, the detached way he responded to instructions, the way he sat, hour after hour, at the piano.
Emma took him for walks from time to time, around the hospital grounds, talking to him, pointing at trees and shrubs and flowers, urging him to notice. She would take his hand and say “Come with me, David,” in as cheerful a voice as anyone has ever used with a child, and lead him out the door, down the porch stairs, across the gravel drive, off into the grass. Sometimes she took off his slippers so he would feel the cool grass between his toes. She often used to think some response was just about to dawn, a look in his eyes, awareness, confusion, surprise, but none ever did. If she walked, he followed; if she stopped, he stopped. If she walked away from him, he stood silent and patient, until she returned and took him back in, or told him to go back. If she said “Let’s go inside now,” he would follow her. If she waited, he waited. But if she said, “Go back in now,” he would go by himself. She didn’t understand how he could know the difference and seem to know nothing else.
A year ago, maybe a little more, there had been another change. Now, instead of sitting silent and unmoving at the piano, he would hold both hands above the keys, fingers spread, slowly moving each finger as if playing. At first Emma had watched when she could spare the time, to see if there were some pattern to the movement. He seemed to play the same thing over and over, his left hand stretched wide, his right hand moving in place, thumb, middle finger, little finger, over and over, then moving to hover over different notes and moving in the same pattern, then in different patterns, but almost always from left to right, from low notes to higher.
Every few days she would take a few minutes to watch, and after several months noticed that the patterns traced by his fingers and hands had become more and more complex over time, as if he were composing an etude, and adding to it with the passing days. She could stand beside him, or in front of him, or behind him, and it made no difference to him. Did he not care that she watched him, she wondered, or did he simply not grasp it? She couldn’t tell.
She took to watching from across the piano, watching his face for some shiver of consciousness. Was he hearing an imagined sound from the notes he pretended to play? If he was, did it have some kind of meaning for him? But his look never changed from the vacant stare, his gaze never wavered from the bright rectangle of light through the window. He never looked down at the keys, never looked in her direction, never turned his head, never showed the slightest animation in his features. Occasionally he would stop suddenly, sometimes putting his hands down in his lap, as if he had made a mistake or reached an impasse, but soon he would start again, seemingly from the beginning of whatever he imagined he heard.
Whatever it was, it seemed to last about four or five minutes. She had timed him for a few weeks, and each time, whatever he was doing, he would do it for about that long, then pause, then start again. When he stopped before that time was up, he would put his hands in his lap, as if thinking. If he went the full time, he would simply pause and start again. Over and over, over and over, over and over.
Most of the time the other residents ignored him. Most of the time, most of them ignored everything, each lost in their own mad world. Few could speak or walk unassisted, so they would remain wherever they were placed, until someone helped them away. But on occasion an ambulatory resident would go to the piano and stare at David, or strike the keys haphazardly. One old woman, now dead, used to stand by the piano and talk at David, “Are you playing something? I don’t hear no music. You can’t play this thing.” He never responded, never acknowledged her any more than anyone else, and she would get bored and leave, usually. A few times she pushed him off the piano stool, and banged the keys madly for a short while. When that no longer held her interest she would simply walk away, and David would resume his place on the stool and start again.
Lester, in his moments of activity, would stand by the piano and shout at David, demand that he really play, call him honky and peckerwood and call down generations of African Methodist Episcopal curses on the silent blond boy’s head. At first, after the incident with the piano lid, Emma grew nervous whenever Lester noticed David, but nothing ever happened again. Lester would begin by cursing the flowers on the wallpaper, the shape of the doorknob, the grill over the radio speaker, and now and then he would turn his invectives on the others in the room, calling anyone names who caught his conscious eye, as no one did more often than David.
But mostly the other residents sat where they were placed, or paced mindlessly, or listened to the radio. It was always tuned to the NBC-Red network; whether that was from a conscious decision or simple neglect, Emma never considered. During the mornings there were local programs, farm reports and news, from Nashville and Atlanta and Chattanooga; in the afternoons, network soap operas; in the evenings, comedies, or dramas, or vaudeville programs from New York. Through them all David sat at the piano, oblivious and silent, fingering the air above the keys.
Emma arrived for work that morning and taken David to breakfast with the other patients. She had an attendant feed him while she made her rounds of the wing. An hour or so later she found him at the piano, fingering, and she stood watching him.
Mary Ann came in and saw her, and told her the news. “You know Lester died last night.”
“Oh! That’s so sad. Did he go peaceful?”
“Hah! Lester? Hell, no. Died screamin’ and cursin’ God for ever havin’ put him on this earth. One minute he was hollerin’ at the top of his lungs, sump’n ‘bout Abraham or Moses, I don’t know what. Then, bloop, he just keeled over dead. Can you come help me with his stuff?” And they went to Lester’s room to inventory and box up the few things the old man had owned.
Afterwards, saddened as always by the news of death, Emma moved slowly about the hospital. Lunch came and went, and no one spoke of Lester, and that, too, made her sad. She had helped move the residents out of the dining hall, saw David at his piano – she thought of it these days as “his” piano – checked the supplies of plates and utensils, and reviewed lists of medications for the afternoon. And now she stood in the hallway just outside the day room, scrutinizing a tray covered with little paper cups that held a rainbow of pills, hearing the music. Slow, funereal, elegant music. She found herself nodding her head in time with the slow beat as she checked the pills on her tray, and the thought, what beautiful music, floated up from her subconscious, and then she thought, consciously, but where’s it coming from?
She went to the door of the day room and pushed it halfway open. The radio speaker far to the left of the door broadcast, at low volume, the dialog of some soap opera; three middle-aged residents sat hunched in chairs in front of it. Others shuffled about in their robes and slippers, and others sat senselessly in chairs and on couches around the room. And David sat at the piano, fingering. Playing.
Emma went to the piano. David was moving his fingers, seemingly in the same pattern he had used silently for months, but this time each finger pressed a key, and his foot rose and fell on the pedal, and music, complete, full-formed, rose into the still air of the room and filled it. Mournful, slow, sad, then building, more on the black keys than the white, growing louder and fuller. Then a change, a faster pace for a brief time, lapsing back into the same theme as at the start; growing again, rising to a glorious, determined, majestic climax, ending in a flurry of low notes.
And then a pause, and he started again. His left hand pressed slowly down on two black notes an octave apart, his right began its three-note pattern. Emma moved to watch David’s face from across the instrument, put the tray down on its closed case. His eyes stayed focused on the window, but there was – did she imagine it? – there was a depth to his gaze she had never seen before. As if he saw what was out there. As if he had always seen it.
She put her hand to her throat and watched him play. He seemed, except for the eyes, exactly as always. He played his music all the way through again, then paused, and started it again. She turned and stared out the window, wondering what he saw out there.
As he came to the end of the piece the third time, she took up her tray again. She made ready to leave, and glanced at him as she stepped away. He was looking now at her.