Lily, from the Society for Absolute Music
by Rebecca Givens Rolland
“Have you committed a crime?” the other women ask, in early morning, as we sit around in the sand on Watergate Bay and wash our long dark skirts. “Can you juggle? Do tricks like the sparrows overhead?” No, I say, trying not to laugh. That I cannot. But I can sing. I can replicate songs a thousand-fold, never tiring. Rocking, heading shoreward, I bring words out like wafers on my lips. I won’t call it Communion if you won’t. Belief sinks in me like blood into a screen.
“All that’s well and good,” they say, “but what about eating? About remaining alive.”
Really it’s up for grabs. At the Headland Hotel, I heard, arguments took place over whether we should be given the servants’ scraps. Supporting our project, even with stale bread and dried tea-leaves, might appear to be taking too strong a stance. Plus, there were hardly any visitors to cook for. If we wanted food, we’d best take up residence and pay.
In fact, in terms of workers, as Frau Elena informs us one morning, there were only three: Ida Glasse, thirty years old and single; the Manageress; Grace Bunt, sixty and single, the Cook/servant; and John Bernard, sixty and a widower, the waiter.
“Three workers?” I ask, unable to hide my disappointment.
“That’s right,” Frau Elena says. “They’ll shut their doors till they have more.”
“No.” She scowls. “More guests.”
Frowning, she passes me an advertisement. Eyes cast down, I explain I cannot read, so she takes the dog-eared page, reads aloud: “Finest Sands on North Coast. South aspect. Rugged Cliffs. Charming Drives. Myriads of Sea Fowl. Unrivalled for position and climate. Furnished by Maple and Co. Ideally suited for families.”
“Families?” I spit into the sand. “That’s hardly what we’re looking for.”
So we’d need self-reliance, make soup out of stale bread, mix it with water, comb our tents for the last of the crushed strawberries. Holding the tarps high, we’d check whether anyone has hidden loaves inside their pillowcases, or crumbs, claiming they were for feeding birds.
Before noon, when the sunlight still breaks, Frau Elena calls a meeting.
“Things are newly dire,” she says, “with no help from the Headland Hotel, no wicker baskets passed down by Ida Glasse, left at the Horse Rock; no more simple luxury: apples nestled in blue checkered napkins, molasses in tiny white jars, even blood sausage once in a while.”
Our preserves should last one more month, if none of us are too greedy, and if we mix the porridge, three parts water to one part grain. During that time, we must double our efforts; stand at the shoreline, breathe from our diaphragms, and meditate on musicality only.
“Unless,” Frau Elena says with a bleak smile, “you find a way to till this land.”
“This is no farmland.” Maryam coughs. “Don’t be absurd.”
Only packed sand and cliffs at our backs. Lead tin and china clay piled up at the port. Against west-coast winds, the sky appears constantly cloudy, a ruined blue-gray. Hours pass with no hint of light. Shells click underfoot, hurting my heels. The faces of the nine-hundred-ninety-eight others surround me; so many, with such savage looks, holding themselves with such perfect posture, it’s as if they were modeling. Maryam’s the only one who stays calm.
After only four days, I’m drained of the questions, the did-you-understand-me curious looks, the head-bobbing of all those who speak English. For them, the language sounds like more than a random collection of metallic sounds. I’m drained after hearing of famous Barcelona women—the avant-garde dancers who refused to eat meat, who claimed to love Isadora Duncan and Greek tragedy alike, who danced barefoot, in dresses of their own making, who never married and fought to abolish the corset, who made innovative use of movement and mime.
Luckily, I sense things are changing. This morning is the morning of Frau Elena’s most important speech. For weeks, she’s been preparing it, composing drafts until her wrist aches from gripping the pen. With a startling self-control, she stands before us, in a long dress with ribbons on the side. She appears not to mind her drenched hem, or even to feel the cold. Forty years old, at least, with a long wrinkle crossing her brow, but with a youthful stance. We all stop washing and come to the shoreline, at the spot where waves crash, to listen. In a huge circle, the women sit primly, skirts hiding legs and ankles. It reminds me of church, or story-time, and I can’t help recoiling. Still, I follow and sit behind a woman with a long dark braid.
Frau Elena stands at the precise center of our circle. Her sweet alto contains a hint of bitterness. I try not to envy her self-possession, how her every word comes out clear.
“Whoever finds Absolute Music first is the one for whom it was destined,” she says. “The music comes to the one it most desires. It cannot be forced or pleaded with. It cannot be lifted off or dragged off like a horse. It comes when it is ready, to the one whose heart longs most.”
For several minutes, I pretend I’m not listening. I cast stones into the water, hide in the back, and smell the air that smells of algae and euphoria. I clench and unclench my stomach muscles, try to parse out the strange British vowels.
In my one-room apartment in Barcelona, I had no ambitions for Absolute Music. Honestly, I only wanted to escape from that reek of rotten apples and Emily’s scent. Light streamed in from everywhere. No curtain prevent traffic noises from the Boulevard from streaming through. Wherever I turned, I caught sight of Emily’s shadow. The horror of having given her up filled me. People would talk, my aunt said. I couldn’t be a singer and a mother both. If I hadn’t given her up, my aunt would have thrown me out on the street, the way she’d thrown out my mother’s dresses, after my mother died of diphtheria.
Escape: my only goal. Absolute Music seemed the most obvious way. Noble, pure, and clean. Escape to a place no one would speak of my swollen stomach and milk-strewn breasts.
One late June morning, I sat with a dog-eared newspaper and heard Frau Elena’s call. My aunt read it, then showed me. It was written in small letters, sandwiched between ads for hair combs and soap. She laughed with obvious hilarity. But I found it no joke. I was sick of that apartment and her incessant smoking and my single bed that reminded me of the three nights spent nursing Emily. I was sick of trying and failing to sing. Yes, I mouthed the songs men had written, but there was nothing original. There was a claustrophobia building inside me; a hollowing out. The sense of being eaten by worms. And dreams, always, of Emily: of her running in sunlight, crawling in a landscaped garden, inspecting ants, rushing into another woman’s arms.
So I took a train, for the first time in my life, from Barcelona to Paris. For the first days, as I met the other women, as the newly feminine sound of their voices filled my ears, escape was my only consuming thought; not arranging song well, not subsuming myself in counterpoint, like a poor swimmer carried away by the currents, as Bardi would have it; not reaching the river’s other side. No: only the driving urge to turn my mind off Emily’s urges, the way she turned her head to with grace, lightly; the muscadine smell of her skin, even the potted plants she’d stared at, watching their leaves swaying, seeming to beg them to sway more. Just as the mind should rule the body, as Frau Elena claimed, citing Bardi again, so the counterpoint should receive its rule from the text. Never mind: I’d say anything, shape-shift, if only I could escape Emily’s ghost.
But, in the past three days, watching Frau Elena and the women leaning into her like crows, I start to have other ambitions. On this Newquay shore, where even the gulls look mildly distraught, I decide it’ll be I who finds the Music first. Not Maryam from Iceland or Roza from Hungary or Luciana from Argentina, or even Celia from London, with her bustle skirt and her airs. They all think they know and love music, but they don’t have my hunger. They haven’t suffered as I have. They don’t have the memory of a child’s flickering face, every hour of every day, waking or asleep; dark curls lying flat against a thin pink blanket, glimmering bright eyes that woke me from any slumber; kohl-dark eyelashes that fluttered, making me want to be better.
“Are you listening?” Celia asks, elbowing me in the ribs.
“Of course.” I open my eyes.
“You know, the customs agents stole my violin on my way to Paris,” Celia says, in a whisper. “Said a girl like me had no business having such an expensive instrument.”
“A girl?” I try to sound interested.
“A girl,” she says, extending her fingers—an octave, an octave plus two. “Can you believe it? No matter that I played on the fanciest stages. No matter that I’m twenty years old.”
“Indeed,” I say. “Traumatic.”
“You’re not listening,” she complains.
And I am listening. At least, I try. I learned no English in school. Nothing I do stills my nerves. Under my hips, it feels there are crabs, or clams, though Frau Elena assures me she’s found none. Upended, I shift on the hard sand. Against the press of so many women, I feel surrounded, and curl up, searching for a comfortable spot. There’s a taste of bad sugar, the last of the stale bread, and an acid rise from a long-ignored hunger. Around me, the women call out ideas. Perhaps Music will come if they sing for twenty-four hours, they say, or if they stay silent for three days, or eat only stale bread, or entirely deny themselves food and water, or put offerings at the shore’s edge, small pebbles and whittled wood. Or if they pretend to ignore it, like a shy but hungry deer, attracted by the reek of cooked food.
“Perhaps,” Frau Elena says, standing before us. “Or perhaps in a surprising way.”
With a dramatic pause—ink-dark eyes, braid stretching down her back—she turns and stares directly at us. There’s a sense that she knows all of us, momentarily, or could. She softens for a second, and then her mouth downturns. She inhales. There will be thunder, and distress, and argument among our ranks, she says. At first, we likely won’t notice. There will be only annoyance: women who pick at their fingernails, irritating the cuticles. We’ll smile and pretend we don’t see the blood trickling down the finger, the persistence of a hangnail, but we do see it, and we can’t help, eventually, turning our mouths up in disgust. There will be women who eat loudly, smacking their lips, and those who persist in telling unfunny jokes, and those who make horse-like noises in their sleep. There will be those who wipe their arms with wet rags, leaving unpleasant spongy droplets on their arms; those who try using shells as money, those who stack blocks like children, those who reek of salt and elderflower, no matter how often they wash.
“Not so,” Margarete calls—wide-hipped, cream-colored face—her Bavarian accent rolling the vowels. “We will get along. I feel it.”
“At times.” Frau Elena turns off. “But not always.”
“We won’t argue.” Abedi fiddles with a clamshell necklace. “I won’t have it.”
“Oh, you will,” Frau Elena says. “You’ll do far worse.”
There will be those who try mothering the others, Frau Elena says; those who pretend to be daughters, even as they claim a desire to be liberated. There will be those who can’t bear to be ignored, those who instinctively darn dresses and wash pots; those who close ranks on the others, those who beg for saviors, those who have nightmares, those who are simply dreamless, and those who hold sticks close, or knives, in their sleep. And the worst part, she says, her voice rising, is that there will be doubt. Think of Eve and the apple. Think of the enormity of a woman believing she’s the first to have thoughts—believing, as she winds her leaf-dress around her, that she will be, until she gives birth, the last. That woman will sing the songs that no one cares for; minor notes; and won’t mind. She’ll believe songs can be sung in a vacuum, dissipating quickly, or pleasing only the few creatures she comes across. Worse, that woman won’t tune her voice well, won’t hear her own awful echoes. So proud, she won’t see her pride isn’t shared. Every animal, the snake onward, will rush off in horror.
Unbraiding her hair, looking startled, Frau Elena shivers but keeps speaking. We’re not like Eve. We’re not the first to be ashamed of ourselves. We’re more snake-like: the tempting ones; the tricksters; the ones speaking in flattering ways, but with empty words.
And the worst, she confirms, is what will happen afterward. With no railway line to save us, no performances to give, we’ll start to feel our goals have little importance; that they are, as our lovers and fathers hinted, absurd. Testing fugues and counterpoints, we’ll become restless, then sarcastic. We’ll forget that music stands to verbal language as waking to sleepwalking; that music is the higher state of being. We’ll forget that Absolute Music could lead us to the divine.
“Of course not,” Abedi says, looking worried. “We won’t forget.”
“Trust me,” Maryam says. “I’ve been through shipwrecks, and worse.”
“I believe nothing,” Celia pouts, “but my own mind.”
“I don’t even believe my own mind,” I joke, but without conviction.
Frau Elena holds up a waggling finger. “None of that matters.”
Iron ore, the Frau tells us, was once smelted here by Iron Age men, for weapons and tools. In later years, the huer’s song, at the sight of pilchards, gave rise to the expression “hue and cry.” And most recently, the Tea Caverns in front of the Headland Hotel have been used by smugglers. Wreckers come to gather the cargo from shipwrecks along the coast. Deep into those caverns, they dive, piling through nets and barrels, not minding the hooks that get caught in the skin.
We must attend to that speckled history, she says, and to the sad glamor of the Headland Hotel, and to the lifeboats drawn by horses, readying themselves. We must attend to the fact that Nāḥāš, Hebrew for snake, also means divination, including the verbs to fortune-tell and to divine. We mustn’t whine or act like children; mustn’t curl up, frightened at our own power, and complain. We mustn’t doubt the art of sound. Any doubt will cause dissent among our ranks.
With such dissent, we’ll call each other flea-bitten, sophistic. We’ll lie about the fire that fills our hearts. We’ll cut each other in a thousand minor ways; ways that don’t hurt at the time, but that, afterward, will make us feel we’ve been punched.
“Punched,” she says again, fist in the air. “And that’s when the Music will turn from you. That’s when you will begin to hate.”
“Hate?” Abedi calls. “Impossible.”
“Everything is possible,” Frau Elena leaves her fist high. “In these times.”
“And then what?” Ingrid stands to face her. “What do you see?”
“You’ll die,” the Frau says. “And leave behind nothing. Only your floating ghosts.”
There is a gasp among the women.
Maryam rocks back and forth, as if she’s rowing a boat, so violently the sand shifts around her. At her side, Lucy sticks out her tongue.
“Ghosts?” I swallow hard. “That’s absurd.”
When I turn to the nine-hundred-odd women, they all look back, frozen-faced.
Frau Elena nicks her head. “It’s not a foregone conclusion.”
Her hair, wet at the tips, reaches her shoulder. When she turns, there’s an aggressive sense of sadness to her face. I want to pull her toward me and comfort her, but I sense this would be taken as an affront, and she’d tell me to go back and find my place.
Overhead, a single gull soars, dividing the air into parts. Cloudless, over the sea, the sky passes. A wind gust sallies forth, and I turn, seeing only bare cliffs and rocks, imagining the nearby landscapes: Mawgan, Bedruthan Steps, the famous Vale of Lanherne, Carnanton Woods. Bethrudan steps: those steep rocks near Newquay, only a mile off, allowing access to the rocky beaches at low tide. Even before our arrival, Frau Elena warned us not to swim there, due to heavy riptides and submerged rocks. Bethrudan: that name taken from the giant who used the stacks, or rocks, as stepping stones. Each has a name, north to south: Queen Bess, Samaritan Island, Redcove Island, Pendarves Island, and Carnewas Island. Queen Bess rock, resembled the head of Queen Elizabeth the First, the Virgin Queen. I wish only pound my head against sandstone, siltstone mudstone, examine the fossils of trilobites and crabs, crumble them until they turn to ruin, to scatter flowers—Bird’s foot trefoil, Kidney vetch, Sheep’s-bit and Spring squill.
“Hate,” Abedi whispers. “Arguments. Punching.”
“Floating ghosts,” Maryam says.
“Is that,” Lucy asks, “what will become of us?”
“What do you think?” Ingrid turns, her pale face even paler.
Against the women’s mingled cries, I turn my head. Wind whips my hair back, finally fresh, with a good chill. Arguments, punching, the words remind me of bad rosaries, clicking. All of a sudden, I’m starving. Sand crunches, odd and useless, between my toes. I draw my mind to the mosses and beetles on the Bethrudan stacks; to the fossils from the Middle Devonian. Over the ages, the weaker, softer rocks have been worn away, leaving only the hard and sturdy ones. Sturdy, or brittle? A flash of that apartment door swinging, back in Barcelona, the morning after I gave Emily up—its dead brown lock—its clang that felt absolute, and final.
“I don’t know.” I pull myself back. “I don’t think we need to be pessimistic.”
“You don’t think we should leave?” Ingrid asks.
“Leave?” I whisper. The thought hadn’t occurred to me. “Now?”
“Before hatred finds us,” she says. “Before we turn on one another.”
Oddly moved, I take her hand in mine.
“We won’t,” I tell her, “trust me.”
I don’t know why I say that; honestly, I don’t trust myself. But the burden feels too much to bear. In a high voice, Frau Elena exhorts us to stay a collective; not fear the desires of our hearts. We must blend those desires, she says, in the search for pure, untrammeled sound.
Ingrid turns, mimicking the Frau’s speech behind her back, a wide o for the open mouth. Not appearing to notice, the Frau clears her throat, then—in a bird-like tone—tells us she’ll speak to us every day this way, until she decides we’re ready, and can do the same for ourselves.
“And then?” Maryam sounds suddenly frosty.
“And then,” Frau Elena says—so quietly I almost can’t hear—“then I will leave.”
Rebecca Givens Rolland writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her fiction has been published in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Slice, and the North American Review. She is the author of The Art of Talking with Children and lives in Boston with her family.
Image: Wherda Arsianto/Unsplash