Rebecca Hirsch Garcia
Rebecca Hirsch Garcia lives in Ottawa, Ontario. Her work has been published in The Threepenny Review, PRISM international, The Dark and the O. Henry Prize Stories.
Her debut collection The Girl Who Cried Diamonds & Other Stories is forthcoming from ECW.
The Singing Keys
For three months, when she was sixteen, the world shifted, and everything made sense to Margarita. If she had known that it was only going to last a season, she would have done things differently. She would have learned languages. Russian, maybe, the language of Gogol and Chekhov and Tolstoy and Pushkin, or French, the language of Proust and Dumas and Duras and Zola, or Spanish, the language of Paz and Rulfo and Neruda and perhaps, more importantly, her father’s mother tongue.
She could have become a woman of science or a woman of war. She could have rearranged the universe to better suit her liking, but she didn’t. The world was unfolding before her in a way that seemed as simple and logical as the addition of one plus one and so she thought she had all the time in the world to watch things play out to their inevitable conclusions.
It wasn’t all regret and waste. In those three months Margarita fell in love, for the first time, with Alastair McDean, the school star. Alastair was a drama student who everyone in school had collectively fallen in love with two years earlier after seeing him perform a collection of Hamlet monologues during his Grade 10 student showcase. He was a year older than Margarita and had never noticed her before, but somehow, during what Margarita would come to think of as the prime of her youth, he had noticed her and had fallen in love with her too.
Margarita was not a drama student, she was a vocal student, an indifferent one, and in the early years of high school she had been berated so thoroughly for the mediocrity of her voice that sometimes the sound of it, the thinness of it, the lack of quality, was enough to reduce her to tears. Yet something strange happened in those three months. Sitting in the padded vocal room, running her scales, she had an understanding of the workings of her own vocal cords. She could hold notes with a power and a purity which she had never held before. Within a month after all the sense-making began, a few days after she and Alastair kissed for the first time in the auditorium control room, Margarita’s music teacher, Mrs. Leith latched on to the fact that something magical was happening. Mrs. Leith was a failed singer of undetermined age, with dark hair streaked through with white and perfect pitch. The students called her “The King Maker” after her success in sending her favorite students to the conservatories of her choice.
Margarita had never been worthy of her notice before, but after she heard Margarita singing alone in the vocal practice room, she rapped on the window with her ring finger and asked Margarita to stay after school. Thus began the extra lessons which began first once, then twice a week. Ostensibly this was so that Margarita herself could improve upon her improvements but an added private benefit, which Mrs. Leith would never admit too, was that the music teacher herself, dizzy with the young girl’s strange new voice, wanted to hoard up the sounds her pupil was making. It was quite something to hear Margarita’s new voice. She was a small girl with a plain round face and a flat, wide nose, who before had had a voice clear as crystal and just as liable to break. Before Mrs. Leith she now stood with her hands clasped in front of her and sang in a smoky voice like a scratched record. Sometimes the sounds she produced were so fantastic that Mrs. Leith would end the sessions early so as not to frighten Margarita with the tears of wonder that clouded her eyes.
At the end of three months Mrs. Leith began to ask Margarita what her plans for the future were. Margarita had planned to follow Alastair to McGill, where he would be going in the fall, and where she would join him a year later, but Mrs. Leith told her these plans were all wrong and as Mrs. Leith talked, Margarita listened. Mrs. Leith wanted Margarita to apply to Juilliard, something she had recommended to only two of her students during her thirty-year teaching career. One of their singing coaches was coming to teach a masterclass in the spring. He was a friend of Mrs. Leith's and she had provided him with a recording, secretly made, of one of Mrs. Leith and Margarita’s private sessions. Margarita had been invited to the masterclass to sing. She would be the youngest student there by far. To Margarita, who only a few months earlier had been unloved and unnoticed, this did not seem so much an honor as what she was rightfully due.
As Margarita prepared for her masterclass the world continued to fall into place. Everything seemed so easy, everything seemed to speak its purpose and its secrets to her. Then she began to hear things.
A certain low-grade tintinnabulation began to haunt her. At night, she would wake from her room and prowl the house, searching for the source of the gentle ringing. When she was at school or alone with Alastair in his home, she never heard a thing. Yet every time she returned home the ringing would begin, sometimes loudly, sometimes more a suggestion than a noise. Her mother and father couldn’t hear a thing, which didn’t worry Margarita. But when her younger sister, Vera, couldn’t hear it either, Margarita began to worry.
Her father took her to the doctor's office at a time when he should have been at work and she should have been having a singing lesson with Mrs. Leith. In his car the noise was especially loud, and when her father got out of the car to pump gas, Margarita had to place her hands over her ears to try to dim the piercing whistle. When she leaned forward, in agony, the noise only seemed to get louder. It was coming from the engine, no, it was coming from the glove compartment box. When Margarita opened up the glove compartment there, mixed in with her father’s license and insurance papers were a pair of keys she had never seen before. And the keys were singing.
“Poor thing,” her father said, cradling her in his arms as they waited to be seen by the doctor. “My poor little girl.”
The doctor looked first in Margarita’s left ear and then in her right. The doctor asked Margarita a lot of questions about when the ringing had begun, what they sounded like, and how often she heard them. Though the doctor never asked, Margarita explained how important it was that she be able to hear as she was a singer. The doctor nodded and then typed a note in Margarita’s chart.
But then just in the car now, on our way over, it just—
Margarita brought her hands together and then pushed her fingers apart. A vanishing act. No more ringing.
“It happens sometimes,” the doctor told Margarita’s father. “Come back if it starts up again and I’ll recommend an otologist.”
As her father and the doctor talked to each other, Margarita slipped one of her hands into her pocket and ran her fingers over the teeth of first one and then the other key. They were still singing to her.
She slipped out of their home that early and rather than meet Alistair she walked to the hardware store around the copy and had them make a copy of the singing keys. As they were being copied, they started to sing a new song, the song of the directions to the lock they fit in. They sang this new song to Margarita as she came back home and stole her father’s car key to slip the keys back into his car. The key copies didn’t sing at all, didn’t even speak, and though she knew it was dangerous, these new treacherously mute keys were the ones Margarita put back in her father’s glove compartment.
Every day since she had turned thirteen and gotten into the special high school that offered things like drama and vocal, Margarita had woken up early and taken two city buses to get from her home in the heart of the city, to the high school in the suburbs. But that day, instead of heading south, to where her school was, she took a bus to the east, to see the lock where the keys belonged. She had to get off the bus in an unfamiliar place, where all the houses looked the same and the streets twisted into each other in a strange labyrinth, but the singing keys told her which way to go and where to turn.
At last, she arrived at an ugly hulking tenement building make of dirtying grey concrete. There were balconies running up and down the building and each one was crowded with its own unique blend of items, laundry and discarded furniture that had been deemed unfit to fill the apartments proper. The pavement outside the building was strewn with cigarette butts and gum. From somewhere up high, the angry voice of a man belted through the air shouting, “You bitch! You fucking bitch—”
A woman with some grocery bags wheezed past, and Margarita, seeing that she was headed inside, darted forward to the front of the building and held the first door open. The woman looked at her suspiciously and then passed through, put down her bags and punched in the door code. When the buzzer went off, Margarita rushed to hold that door open too and this time the woman smiled at her, a hesitant, broken little thing that looked as if it cost the woman too much to give. In the elevator, the woman pushed the nine button, its numbered face half burnt away, and Margarita tapped the five, the way the keys told her to.
On the fifth floor the keys began to sing louder than ever and the closer she got to the lock, the louder they sang. When she at least reached the correct lock and put each key in their allotted slot, they stopped singing and issued a deep sigh of contentment. For a minute Margarita didn’t know what to do, the silence overwhelming her.
There was nowhere to go but forward and so Margarita walked into the apartment. It was not a nice place. It smelled of synthetic flowers and underneath that there was the distinct odor of food left to rot. The bare white walls had streaks of dirt here and there. With each step Margarita took there was an unpleasant and sandy sounding little crunch from the impact her shoe had on the grit on the floor. There were heaps of laundry on the couch, and Margarita went to it and touched the cheap clothes of the woman who lived there. Her threadbare jeans, her nylon blouses.
So, the woman was poor. Margarita walked through the living room touching her tacky things gently here and there. She did not even know that she was looking for anything in particular until she found it, a picture of her father, with the woman who presumably lived in the apartment, a picture of them laughing into the camera. Her father’s arms were wrapped around the woman in a way that was intimate and unmistakable, his cheek pressed up close to hers. She picked the picture up to examine it more closely but when she put it back, she misjudged her aim and it clattered to the floor so loudly Margarita was sure it was broken. For a moment she stood still, holding herself tight and tense, waiting to feel the pain from the shards of glass embedded in her flesh. When she finally gathered up the courage to look, she realized there were no shards, no broken glass at all. The cheap frame had survived and what she had thought was glass was just some plastic. She picked it up and put it back where she thought she had found it.
“Hello?” In real life the woman from the picture looked older and more tired than her photographic self. She, or someone she had not paid very well, had attempted to dye her hair blonde and had only succeeded in making it a burnt orange. She had a baby on her hip and the baby looked at Margarita and smiled. In that smile were all the echoes of Vera when she was a newborn.
“Do I know you?”
There was a phone in the woman’s other hand and her thumb was poised over the keypad. Margarita no longer felt certain of anything, but she would have bet that the woman had already dialed at least the 9 of 911.
“I’m Jorge and Elena’s daughter.”
“Oh.” All the fight rushed out of the woman all at once. She moved her thumb quickly to end the call and then threw the phone on the couch, where it landed softly amongst the clothes, and then stood there, not quite able to meet Margarita’s eyes.
Margarita kept looking at her, and then looking at the baby who looked like Vera and couldn’t think of a thing to say.
“Shouldn’t you be in school, honey?” the woman finally asked.
“Do you want a ride?”
Even though Margarita would not have known the way to the woman’s house without the singing keys, the woman knew the way to Margarita’s school without being told. Like her home, the woman’s car was cheap and ugly, the sides rusting out and the seat patched in places with duct tape, but the car seat in which she placed Margarita’s brother was new and expensive. Margarita knew, without being sung too, that this was a gift from her father to his son.
“Are you Vera?” the woman asked as they stopped in front of a red light.
“No,” Margarita said. She felt offended that this woman knew Vera’s name and, knowing it, did not know enough to know that Vera was only twelve years old.
“Margarita then,” the woman said. “Margarita who sings.”
But she must have sensed something of Margarita’s anger for she didn’t say anything more. The light turned green and that was that.
By the time they reached the school it wasn’t even midday. As she opened the car door, Margarita turned to the woman and said, “I would prefer if we pretended this day never happened.” The woman opened her mouth to say something and then shut it again and simply nodded and Margarita felt a wave of relief wash over her that she could be done with the whole wretched day.
“Thank you,” Margarita said, and then felt ashamed. She should have spit on the woman. She felt her lack of loyalty to her mother like a poison deep in her bones.
Instead, she turned to say goodbye to the baby who was gurgling prettily in the backseat and then just as abruptly lurched towards the passenger side door and, still half in the car, threw up on the sidewalk. The bile that spewed from her was textured like the oatmeal she had eaten that morning and was flavored with an acid that burned her mouth and made her eyes water. She could feel the woman behind her, rubbing her back, murmuring words of comfort. A comfort that unsettled. Margarita closed her eyes accepting the woman’s hands on her back because she couldn’t do anything else, couldn’t even push her away and scream like she wanted to. When she felt steady enough, she untangled herself from the seatbelt and climbed out of the car, slamming the door behind her as she went. She never turned back.
At home Vera was the first one to greet her. “You’re in big shit,” Vera said, bouncing up and down looking malicious and nothing like her bright, dumb, baby self. “The school called because you missed half a day.”
“What is wrong with you?” Margarita’s mother said, as she came out of the kitchen. Her anger dissipated as Margarita began to cry, as she walked into her mother’s welcoming arms and clung to her.
“It’s all this singing nonsense, isn’t it?” her mother said as she cradled Margarita. “You’re just a kid, I don’t know why that woman keeps putting all that pressure on you. I don’t want you to go to Juilliard anyway. I’d miss you too much.”
Her mother put her to bed early and Margarita lay there for a long time with tears sliding down her cheeks listening to the bed and the dresser and the walls and the ceiling all talking. Every book was vomiting its contents at her in hushed low undertones, and she wanted to listen to them all, but she could only hear a word or two before her attention was caught by something else. Over it all the keys were singing its beautiful directions to the blonde woman’s house, chanting them over and over in such a way that Margarita couldn’t stop listening. She lay there listening until very early in the morning, when she chewed her lip raw and could taste the metallic taste of her own blood seeping into her mouth.
“No more,” Margarita begged. “I don’t want to know anything anymore.” The books were the first to hush, and then the house, and then the bed. Margarita fell asleep at last, just as the sun was beginning to rise, to the sound of the keys singing very, very softly for her alone.
When she finally woke there were two notes, both from her mother. The first told Margarita that in consideration of her hard work and the stress she was under she was being given the privilege of having a mental health day. The second was a note, signed and dated, excusing Margarita from her previous absences at school.
It was not as fun to stay at home as she would have imagined. She watched movies until her eyes ached and ate the cookies she knew Vera was saving for herself. But no matter where she wandered in the house, she could hear the keys singing softly up in a drawer in her room.
It was always busy downtown, even midday when everyone was supposed to be at work. Margarita got off the bus at Parliament along with a crowd of tourists wearing bucket hats and backpacks, who ran straight through the gates, towards the Eternal Flame. She broke away from the pack and turned left. She walked past Library and Archives and kept going until she was on the bridge to Hull.
The traffic across Portage Bridge was unrelenting, but aside from Margarita, the only other pedestrians she saw was a lone jogger who quickly passed her. From up high the water was hypnotically violent, no wave or twist of water the same. The current was strongest at the part where there was a little tourist sign and Margarita pretended to read the whole sign as the cars rushed past her, her hand in her pocket wrapped around the keys. It was hard to hear the keys over the sound of rushing water, but she could hear them anyway, hear them giving her directions in their beautiful voices.
When the keys were almost done their singing, she leaned over the railing pretending to admire the water. She had almost let them slip out of her palm when she heard them change their tune. They began to sing another more frantic song, telling her that they still had so much to tell, promising her spitefully that she would never know any of it if she let them go. She would be ordinary, they told her. She would be dull. Alastair would leave her. When she went to the masterclass her rich new voice would abandon her, falling away like smoke in the wind and with it would go Mrs. Leith and her patronage, her Juilliard connections. It would be just like before.
She tipped her hand and watched them fall prettily into the great white foamy waves which swallowed them whole.