Reading time: 8 min
She played him once, when he was alive. How could she refuse? Lucio Gresci’s reputation far exceeded her own, and his request was a summons, no matter how much she dreaded it. His studio was in a large detached house, walled and surrounded by gardens with a few fruit trees. He greeted her at the door wearing a large cape. She tried not to look at his chest, although he seemed happy enough to look at hers, which didn’t help to put her at ease.
They sat in a small kitchen where he gave her coffee that she didn’t want. His small talk consisted of boasting of his own achievements, and she listened politely, trying to think of a reason to check if she had a mobile signal. It was almost a relief when he stood up, announced “but you came here to play!” and walked to the studio without checking if she was following.
She hadn’t thought about the mechanics of the act. In the centre of the room was a long couch which he sat astride, facing away from her. Only then did he remove the cape and toss it onto the carpet. She sat behind, pressed up against him. She didn’t want to be this close, and hoped that he wasn’t enjoying it much more than she was. She reached around him with her left arm, her bow in her right.
She could feel the vibration in the strings, faint but real. Ba-doom. Ba-doom.
“I’m sorry my acoustics aren’t so good,” he said. “The instrument is not yet finished.”
Once they had shuffled into position, she found he was a good fit. She could reach the strings easily, and her bow ran along them as if she had been playing him for years. It didn’t quite sound right, but she hadn’t expected it to. She played a few practice tunes, and found herself relaxing.
“It is a disappointment to me that I cannot play myself,” he said. “Physically it is possible, but too uncomfortable to keep up for any length of time. Like any instrument, I need my player to come alive.”
She stopped playing. “It ruins it when you speak.”
Other vibrations were running up and down his strings, vibrations that had come from his voice box rather than her bow. They were waves that set up interference patterns with the waves she was trying to create. She placed her fingers on the strings to still them, then ran her way up towards the peg box, implanted in his sternum. If she’d run the other way, she would have found the tailpiece jutting out from his pelvis, but that felt a little too presumptuous. It was a miniature cello—he’d need to be twice as tall to convert himself into a full-size one—but she’d played such things before.
“The instrument will only be finished upon my death,” he said. “My spine and rib cage will be incorporated into the design. The strings are already in place, and a new wooden body can be built around it. How would you like to play my skeleton?”
By way of reply she played the top line from Chopin’s Funeral March. “I prefer to play the living.”
This time, he waited for her to get to the end of her tune. “Have you ever read a book by a deceased author, and thought, this person is not dead? How can they be, while their words echo around your head as if they are sitting next to you, relating the story in person? Are we not our thoughts? When you read, you think the thoughts of another. They take life again, within your brain. So shall it be with me and my music. When someone cradles my rib cage, as you do now although you do not see it, when they pull their bow across the strings that I have already made part of my body, then I shall come alive as I am now.”
Was that all it was then, a desperate attempt at immortality? When she had first heard of his transformation she had respected his decision, without wanting to be his player. There was something apt about a musician becoming the music. But somehow this desire to stay alive had just cheapened it. “Let’s just play,” she said simply.
He had prepared the music for her, the first of Bach’s six suites. She found it easy to focus on the strings, to forget about the human being who embodied them. Both she and he were mere conduits for the music, their own desires irrelevant. But there was something odd, something she had not felt in a cello before. She thought at first he was breathing heavily, maybe even humming. There was another wave in the strings, one that interfered with her own music. Enlivened it; that was the word.
“It won’t work,” she said. “When you’re dead. The instrument will be dead as well.”
“Why do you say that?” She could hear his disappointment.
“I can hear your heartbeat. In the strings. The tiniest of vibrations. Ba-doom; ba-doom; ba-doom.”
He was quiet for a while. “No one else has noticed that.”
She left her fingers in place, touching the strings, taking his pulse. Ba-doom. Ba-doom.
“There is something you could do for me,” he said.
She took her fingers away, wondering if he was going to propose something sexual.
“I should like you to be my bow.”
She knew exactly what he meant. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I know this is much to ask. But think of the music we would play together. If the bow hair were threaded from your wrist to your elbow, and you could play me by moving your arm across my chest—”
“You want me to modify my arm? Into a bow?”
“Does it disgust you? Then you should not be sitting so close to me.”
She swung her legs off the couch and stood up. “I’ve known people who altered themselves. It went wrong.”
“I am sorry. I should not have asked. Please come and play again.”
“I think I should go. Thank you for giving me this opportunity, it’s been most interesting. I hope you find your bow. But it won’t be me.”
He removed himself from the couch and put the cape back on, covering his strings. “I apologise again. But you felt my heartbeat. Please do not forget it.”
It was raining outside, and she hailed a taxi. She felt a little unclean, as if the assignation had been sordid, and she couldn’t wait to get in the bath.
Every cello she played after that felt dead.
But that was probably why he bequeathed her the cello. She didn’t want it, and was astonished when she’d heard. She certainly didn’t want to play it, but when she learnt that the bequest was being challenged, she felt obliged to fight it. It was a cousin, his nearest surviving relative, who insisted the cello should be buried or burnt. She knew this was not what Gresci had wanted, and felt that she owed it to a fellow musician to respect his wishes.
And so it was three years after his death that she finally took delivery. She hoped they’d made a good job of it; she knew she’d have to play it on stage after such a public legal challenge. She needn’t have worried. His spine was now the spine of the instrument, running down its back. The wood had been sensitively built within the rib cage, and she assumed that the strings were exactly as they had been when he was alive.
There was only the bow to be considered. She was still uneasy about the modification, but she had to make the performance as good as it could be.
The operation was overseen by the cello maker, but was conducted by a surgeon. It wasn’t a difficult one. The plastic was fused to her bone at each end; the hair was directly attached to her wrist, while the frog was inserted at her elbow. Her ulna and radius formed the bowstick. She was given a local painkiller and was able to talk throughout the operation, although she had little to say.
“It all feels fine,” the surgeon said at the end. “There’ll be a small amount of tightening in the wrist.”
She thought she saw a downward crease in his forehead. “What do you mean by that?”
“It’s fully reversible. But as long as you have this cord fused to your wrist, you may find you can’t grip in quite the same way.”
She still didn’t understand what he was trying to tell her until she got home, and found she could no longer play. She was unable to hold her bow in the same way; her grip was still strong, but it wasn’t accurate enough. It didn’t sound bad, but it no longer sounded like her. Her arm was now her only bow. She tried it on her own cello, moving her arm across it as if she were stroking a lover, but it was too awkward.
She’d reverse it as soon as she could, but she felt she owed at least one performance to his memory, and she’d be torn apart in the media if she didn’t. And until it was over, she couldn’t return to her own playing. It seemed like some head game from beyond the grave, an act of revenge for rejecting him when he was alive.
She first played him in private. She was alone, and wore several layers of clothing which made her feel too warm. They cushioned her against the unwanted pressure of the vertebrae. Her own bones felt far more fragile and she flinched back to avoid his invasion of her space. She drew the bow across the strings, trying not to touch his remains with her bare skin. But she found she could do it; his rib cage had given the cello a strange, rounded shape that she could easily get her arms around. The notes sang beneath her arm. He was a jealous ghost; he had ensured that she could play no one except him.
So the performance was booked. The Bach suites; what else was there to play? It would be streamed round the world; people with no interest in Bach, or cellos, or music, were just the same fascinated to watch a modified woman vibrate the strings of a dead man. The live audience numbered only a thousand. She rarely performed for that many, and hoped that her career would sustain these kinds of numbers once she had put him away. She would probably have to keep him; it would not be a popular move to sell him, although she might get away with it if she gave the proceeds to charity.
She walked on stage to applause. The cello was covered with a dark green sheet; an assistant removed it, as if it were work too heavy for someone of her artistic sensibilities. There were gasps from the audience, even though they all knew what was under the sheet. There were further gasps as she took her cloak off and revealed her arm.
She was nervous, as she always was, but the moment she touched the strings she forgot the audience. There was only the performance. Only the movements she had carried out so often before, willed but unconscious. She listened as if she were the only audience.
She stopped. She was only five bars in, but she stopped playing. She had to know. She couldn’t have imagined it. She could feel the nervousness of the audience; it was so embarrassing to be reminded that the performer was a human being, not a machine. But she had to know.
It was faint. It was only the tiniest of vibrations, but it was there in the strings. Ba-doom. A tension with what she was playing. A wave that she had not put there herself. Ba-doom; ba-doom; ba-doom.
Only she could feel him; she was sure of that.
She closed her eyes and went back to the beginning, playing across him, smoothing Bach’s figures across his heartbeat, massaging him back into life.
Copyright 2022 Neil James Hudson
Photo by Ira Selendripity on Unsplash
“The Tiniest of Vibrations” forms part of a book-length story cycle called “One Hundred Pieces of Millia Maslowa”, which I began while studying for my MA in Creative Writing at York St John University. Other parts have appeared in the York Literary Review and Trembling With Fear, and the final draft should be ready sometime this year.