Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

The Summer Concert

 

  

 

The Port Judgment Elementary School Summer Concert always falls toward the end of May, and this year it is on a Thursday. Zumba day, thinks Martha, disgruntled, as soon as she opens her eyes. She sits up and takes a sip of the Darjeeling that Russell had left on her bedside table before he departed for the train. The room is filled with sludgy gray light, and the tea is sludgy too; a curdled skin floats like a deflated rubber raft upon its surface. 

Martha readjusts her pillow. Waking up is brutal; a sort of molestation, she finds. She needs to crawl into the day. She performs a bleary reconnaissance, discovers that, as to be expected, all is Not Good. Yesterday’s clothes lie in heaps beside those of the day before, and the Babel tower of paper and books and magazines and coupons that she had been constructing over the past year has succumbed to gravity and tumbled over in the night. And to top it all, she has a wicked hangover. She puts the teacup down, flops rag-doll limp over the covers.

“Come on, old thing,” she cajoles herself. “Vivienne needs you. Time to put your hat on and face the music.”

* * *

 

Across town, in the Downing household, Felicia, who was Martha’s dearest companion until six months ago, stretches a socked left foot onto the granite surface of her kitchen island. For the past twenty years, Felicia has risen at precisely 5:32 a.m. and headed out for a five-mile run. It would not occur to her to deviate from this routine. Giving birth had, of course, momentarily corroded her discipline, but she had been back within a week, pounding the quiet streets, an enormous panty liner wedged into her running shorts.

She reaches for her heel, pulls her chin toward her knee. Just beyond the extension of her toes sit her children, Markham, and the twins, Bertram and Elvira. Markham is already dressed in peppermint shorts and a pink shirt, and his seersucker blazer hangs over a kitchen chair. He has flicked his tie over his left shoulder and Felicia, plunging now into a runner’s lunge, is reminded violently of her own father, his ruthless fastidiousness. She inhales deeply. Moves mindful through warrior one, warrior two, then catches a glimpse of the time on the microwave. 

“We leave in half an hour,” she informs the children. “I told Mrs. Fettescue that I would save us seats. In the front row.”

The children turn to her, their faces unified in a single expression of surprise.

“What?” asks Felicia defensively, scooping up her sneakers.

* * *

In the most desirable part of town, near the Old Club, Felicia’s new best friend, Jane, is bent double in her bedroom, blow-drying the roots of her auburn hair. Out of the window, to her left, beyond an expanse of lawn, lies the Sound, bleached of color, the distant limb of Long Island hidden. If she were a more imaginative woman, Jane might marvel at this—at this perplexing play of air and light, this fata morgana—but Jane is all business. Her world is entirely free of magic, and this is one of the things that Felicia most admires about her. And her orderliness—for Jane is like an automaton, coldly perfect.

Jane rights herself, unplugs the dryer, and at once the eerie lament of Harrington’s trumpet replaces the roar. Jane grimaces.

“Harrington!” she bellows. “Harrington, darn it! Stick a sock in it!”

A felty silence descends. Then Harrington’s bedroom door slams shut.

“Honestly!” says Jane to herself.

* * *

 By eight o’clock a caravan of cars begins to circumnavigate the school drop-off zone. The cars may differentiate themselves in age, in their state of cleanliness, and in the number and variety of bumper stickers that ornament their trunks—two-dimensional American-dream sticker families of lacrosse-playing children, “PEACE” written using an amalgam of religious icons, the names of various colleges and private schools, yellow ribbons, the occasional surreptitious broomstick—but they are uniformly gargantuan, living rooms on wheels, with television sets that extend down from the ceilings, and cup holders, and footrests, and outlets for innumerable electronic devices.

Felicia, however, is already in Steam, ordering decaf almond lattés for Jane and herself. She had pulled into the school twenty minutes earlier and dashed into the gym to secure seats, while her children stomped off to stand outside their locked classrooms. To her annoyance, however, she discovered someone had preempted her; a parasol with silk the color of ripe cherries lay across the three most desirable chairs. Felicia had stared at the umbrella for several torturous seconds. She had not dared to move it. 

By 8:10 a.m. she returns to the school, parking beneath a white oak on the outskirts of the campus. It is 91°F according to the dashboard thermometer. Felicia gets out of the car, and the morning, hot and damp, exhales around her. She carries the coffees into the gym, stopping only to shake Mr. Harker’s cavernous hand and accept a program. Several women wave at her. She hears her name called, but a quick scan of the room confirms that it is Deborah Deepgrave and that Martha is nowhere to be seen, thank goodness. She smiles at Deb, and indicates that she is sitting with Jane, who by now has located their chairs. Jane’s hair hangs forward like two strips of burnished copper. She is reading something on her phone. Felicia cannot help admiring the beautiful cabling of her neck.

* * *

When Martha arrives the children are already lined up in crocodiles ready to march in. Vivienne had taken the school bus earlier, which she much prefers, for it is rare that her mother makes anything on time. Sometimes Martha suspects that she might be bewitched. That someone is deceiving her, winding her minutes faster than they ought to go. For how else can other women do what they do? Keep such immaculate houses. Lunch—properly—in heels and lipstick and earrings, for fuck’s sake, despite only having finished spinning an hour before? Martha can barely get dressed and shop for groceries and perhaps put in a load of laundry before once again it is time for the children to come home from school and the whole rigmarole recommences.

And now here she finds herself, late once more. She slips past the children, not bothering to glance at the chairs. She is cognizant that all are occupied. Nobody would secure her a place, not even Rowena —who can be quite stupid in her kindness. No, not on Concert Day. She must face it alone

She finds a tiny spot at the rear, between a special needs’ assistant and a column, and presses her shoulders against the sticky wall. Where is Felicia? She hasn’t seen her in three weeks, not since they ran into each other in CVS and Felicia dismissed her as though she was someone she vaguely recognized, before putting her hand on Markham’s shoulder and propelling him out the door. It had been the Worst Moment in Martha’s Life. Felicia’s casual indifference. That look! It had struck Martha to the core and there, right beside the adult diapers, she had fallen to her knees on the gray carpet and sobbed.

The children shuffle into their places; the hubbub dispels. Martha’s hands are clammy, and the low-lying anxiety she has been experiencing for the past few days now graduates to full-on nausea. Her underarms ooze moisture; she can feel the damp half moons on her T-shirt. The special needs’ assistant seems to be listing away from her. Surely she put on deodorant? She tries to wind her mind back, but any memory of getting dressed is a blur. That old longing, to up stakes, to find a new town, to remake herself, breaks over her. But no, the Fates have played their hand. Port Judgment is where she must reel out her days, a crawling maggot among dancing butterflies.

But then the side door opens and Martha’s misery is forgotten, for something potent but ineffable, like a disturbance in the subatomic fabric of the universe, undulates through the room. It is Mr. Harker, she sees, flamboyant in a striped bowtie. And draped off his arm is the president of the PTA herself, Mrs. Beatrice Causabon. The audience moves as one, rising like a tide toward her. Martha is forced up onto her toes.

Beatrice is wearing a red dress, cinched tightly at the waist, with a skirt that falls to her knees. A tiny black top hat, ornamented with a gleaming black feather, is perched à côté on her head. From under the brim her eyes glitter like beetle backs.

Mr. Harker stoops his long frame, picks up something—an umbrella—and as he does so Martha’s heart capers. Felicia! She is right up there! In the front row! And beside her, nodding her head mechanically at Beatrice as though she were just anyone, is that awful Jane. Martha swallows, fails. Her mouth is as dry as ash. 

* * *

Felicia, who was smiling when the side door opened, keeps it up as Beatrice sits down, but a prickle of unease spreads like shingles down her ribs. What the devil was she thinking? She has overreached herself. This is where Beatrice’s inner circle should be, Adeline Manners, Liliana Van Pelsing, and Pat MacBeth. All of who she now she realizes are behind her, their faces compressed with fury. And somewhere farther back is Martha.

Felicia shakes her head. She does not want to think about Martha. She had seen her hurrying, like a penitent, her unkempt black hair streaked with gray, and Felicia’s mind had plummeted rebelliously back a quarter of a century to Camp Wimapausie in upstate New York. She and Martha sequestered in the rooty embrace of an oak. That summer of their first periods, and with it the slow awakening of their latent powers. Those early rough spells. Bewitching fireflies and concocting love potions; Martha—mesmerizing, unpredictable—with her scabbed knees and glittery painted toes. floating an inch above the forest floor, her hair, dark as a raven’s wing, coiling among the acorns. They were inseparable then, she and Martha, sleeping in each other’s beds and sharing each other’s clothes.

“Weirdos,” the other campers called them, and they embraced the name, empowered themselves with it.

Weirdo, can I borrow your bug spray?

Weirdo, braid my hair, will you?

Felicia swallows. Yes, Martha is back there, but she is not that Martha. She is a grown-up Martha, faded and pickled with spite.

* * *

Martha scrutinizes her program. Not too long. Several songs and then an “Instrumental Showcase by the Students.” She casts an eye over the assembled performers. The boys, for the most part, wear khaki trousers, navy jackets and ties; but some feet are sneaker-shod and one unknown child is wearing slip-on driving shoes, Italian-gigolo style. And positioned in the center is Markham Downing, ridiculous in pastels, a human ice-cream sundae. Bar Markham, the boys possess a deer-in-the-headlights stare. Rightly so, she soon understands, for as Miss Todwater strums the opening notes on her guitar, it is apparent that the students are expected to gyrate, click their fingers.

The girls approach this confidently. Too much so, thinks Martha, noticing with distaste how Cora’s eldest rocks her hips. The girl has breasts and the sleeve of her short dress has slipped off her plump left shoulder, revealing a pink brassiere strap. Her coven is clustered around her, their movements an infinitesimal second behind Lydia’s as they survey her from the corners of their vixenish preteen eyes. 

And there, on the far right, is Vivienne. Sweet V. Martha raises a hand, tries to indicate that she has made it after all, but Vivienne is staring at the floor. 

“Come on, cupcake,” Martha coaxes, but the music is already dying, the song over.

* * *

 The next song is jaunty, familiar. A pop song. Even Jane recognizes it; she mouths her leaden lips along to the lyrics. The performers sing with gusto. A forest of smartphones and video recorders extends above the heads of the audience—an electronic reincarnation of Birnam Wood—but Jane does not realize this for she is focusing on her daughter through the immense lens of her professional Nikon.

* * *

 Martha sticks a hand into her bag, gropes among the old receipts, tampons, lipsticks, and half-eaten protein bars, but no phone is to be found. Shit. This is Very Bad. Where the hell did she leave it? Kitchen table? Car? And then it comes to her. The orchid in the bathroom, deceased in situ. The phone, screen repaired with duct tape, beside it.

She glances once more at Vivienne, who has not changed her expression; her gaze pinned on something invisible before her. Her hair hangs in ragged strands to her shoulders, her sallow cheeks are marred by spots. She is wearing a tartan dress (her concert outfit) that suddenly looks both unseasonable and far too small. When did Vivienne get so big? So awkward? Martha glances once more at the other girls, at their lithe forms, their platform heels, their blue-painted nails, the earrings glinting in their twelve-year-old lobes. Vivienne has never once asked to go to a nail salon. She never wants to do anything other than sit in her room and play Minecraft. Martha frowns. She understands now how her own inadequacy has extended way beyond her, is souring the things that are dearest to her. She is like King Midas, except her curse isn’t gold, its obsolescence.

* * *

Felicia has her phone, of course. She is never without it but right now, right here, she doesn’t dare extract it. What if she blocks someone’s view? Or worse yet, it rings? This is what she tells herself, but in reality she is quite frozen in terror. Beatrice Causabon blazes like a paralyzing light at the edge of her vision. But Jane, dear Jane, is the antidote. She is a sinkhole of emotion. Nothing perturbs her. It is like sitting next to a statue, a statue she can lean on or hide behind. She tries to focus on that, but even as she does another problem arises. Markham. The boy is singing with unmitigated fervor. Felicia glares at him, hoping that he will notice and understand her implicit warning, but Markham ignores her. As he pours into the last verse, his mouth opens wider and wider until she can even see his tongue, quivering and vibrating—a wet, molluscular thing.

* * *

 The song comes to an end and the atmosphere in the gym sags. Martha cannot tear her eyes off her lumpen daughter. She wants to push past all these mothers and shake Vivienne, slap her even, a stinging blow to the cheek. But more than that she wants to catapult herself in front of her, shield her. She throws her head heavenward, and as she does so she notices, through a tiny high window, the bulging underbellies of clouds.

Oh, for something cataclysmic!

A downpour of dead sparrows? Anything!

But Mr. Harker is on his feet.

* * *

“And now,” he intones, “it is time for the instrumental part of our wonderful performance. Would all children please locate their instruments and return to their places as quietly as possible.” 

Harrington flicks a cascade of red hair over her shoulder and hops off the bleacher she has been standing on, clambering up a second later, her trumpet in hand. She has a hot, determined look on her face.

“That’s my girl,” thinks Jane. Personally she cannot fathom her daughter’s interest in the instrument. The strange burping hoots it produces. The look of strain that distorts Harrington’s pretty features. The repugnant draining of the jettisoned saliva. Even the smell of Brasso that Harrington uses frequently to keep her horn sparkling. But Jane is an indulgent mother. Perhaps a little too indulgent, she suspects in weak moments, when Harringon narrows her green eyes and Jane finds herself incapable of saying no.

And why should she anyway? Isn’t this what it is all about? All those mornings shivering on the platform, the snow tumbling in the glare of the municipal lights, as she waits for the 5:30 a.m. train into the city? The innumerable weekends holed up in her home office, working, so Harrington can have it all: ballet lessons, horse-riding camp, private tutors, and even a palate expander? For isn’t Harrington the embodiment of her success, her creation, the living, breathing proof of her competence?

Up on the stage Harrington flashes her a quicksilver smile with her engineered mouth, so different to Jane’s narrow gray gums, and all uncertainty vanishes. Harrington is perfect. If she wishes to play the trumpet, so be it. And Harrington, as though receiving this approbation telepathically, snaps her heels together and positions her instrument against her lips.

* * *

Markham is playing the electric guitar. It had been a point of contention with Felicia, who had hoped for a more rarified instrument, something that might have hinted at the deep trail of his roots. The viola? The oboe?

“Or why not the harpsichord?” she had cried to Buckley one weekend. “He would probably get into Harvard if he played the harpsichord!”

Buckley had taken a long meditative sip of his Dark ’n’ Stormy. It was four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, the game was on. Until Felicia’s intrusion, life had been perfect. He had even found some unopened chips and a jar of salsa at the back of the pantry. Irritation scurried through him. Their marriage was predicated on boundaries; he knew that, she knew that. He earned the money, managed the accounts, and oversaw the sporting education of his sons. Felicia handled all the running of the home, education, and issues pertaining to their social standing.

The harpsichord? Did real men have sons who played the harpsichord? He had no idea. And now look, Manning just got sacked! He took a swig of his drink. What the hell was a harpsichord anyway?

* * *

Markham received a Fender for his birthday. He was not the musical prodigy Felicia had expected, despite the genetic superiority of his ears, but now, sitting only three feet from him in the front row, she permits herself a flush of pride as he hoists the strap over his neck. She catches his eye.

“Knock ’em dead, baby,” she mouths.

* * *

 At the back of the gym, Martha is light-headed. The moment has come. The moment when Vivienne’s supremacy will become apparent. To her relief, she notes that her daughter has finally moved out of park and has retrieved her cello from its case. She is the last to get set up, and it seems purposeful, the defiant way she plonks herself down now, the porcine squeal of her chair legs against the floor. Vivienne pulls out her bow, runs it light but lingering over the strings—a mournful minor C. And through the window, as though in collaboration, a low echo of thunder growls back.

* * *

“I am delighted to announce,” says Mr. Harker, “that our very gifted Etta Causabon will be leading today," and Etta, her black hair falling in an ironed wave, steps forward. Her baton lowers, the music begins. It is horrible, discordant. The parents grimace and lean back in their chairs. Martha screws up her eyes. Her headache, which she had suppressed with Anadin, begins to pound again. Would it be rude, she wonders, to stuff her fingers in her ears? A small boy bangs relentlessly on a triangle. A girl, with protruding cornflower eyes, shakes a bell like the denizen of a Victorian lunatic asylum. But Etta does not seem perturbed. Down comes her baton—it swings to the left, marks graceful shapes in the air. Martha cannot see her face but she can imagine it: the straight sharp nose, the small mouth with the slightly dominant upper lip, her mother’s piercing eyes. The noise boils on. Martha can feel it on her skin, raking up her arms, delving into her hairline. She stands on her tiptoes, can just see Vivienne, who is slumped over her cello, the angle of her arm jerking backward and forward. Her baby. She wants to run out there, gather her up, take her away from this cacophony, this ravaging, but before she can realize this thought, or even talk herself out of acting upon it, Vivienne sits up straighter. She even flicks a sheaf of hair behind her ear.

A sharp biting pain assails Martha’s thumbs.

Etta is still conducting, but now she points to the violins on the left, then runs her hand through the air as though she is pushing grains of rice along a counter. The chaotic notes meld, fall into something familiar; and with it comes a hammering on the windows of warm summer rain.

I know this music, thinks Martha, and she does, of course she does, it is a sort of anthem to many of those assembled in this room. It speaks of dark hills and caves, of wild moonlit revels, and it stirs something primitive in Martha’s heart. She sets her shoulders, pushes away from the grimy wall. Why should she be banished to the rear of the room? She looks out across the shining heads, at Beatrice Causabon and then to her left, to Felicia, her lifelong friend until six months ago, and Jane, The Usurper, with her cog-and-sprocket heart.

The music swells. Martha’s anger rises along with it. She has not felt this alive in years. The rain is torrential now, streaming down the windows, drumming on the roof. She turns her attention back to her daughter. Vivienne’s bow is darting across the strings, her right elbow cleaves the air. Martha strains her ears. She cannot make out the cello at all. This was to be Vivienne’s moment, her coronation, but now, seeing it snatched away by Etta’s hocus-pocus, Martha cannot bear it. Vivienne must be heard. It is a matter of pride. Before she can reconsider, the pads of her left thumb and forefinger are pressed together. The behest is cast.

Vivienne’s shoulder blades snap to attention. Her eyes narrow, a crease appears between her unplucked brows. But she is compliant, her bow rides the strings, the cello sways, and the notes amplify until it is as though a hundred cellists are playing in unison. Martha’s eardrums hum. She is in a hive of her own making, and the bees are singing, singing. 

* * *

Felicia jumps like she has been stung. She recognizes the signature of the spell before she hears the outcome. How could she not? Martha’s magic is as familiar to her as the texture of her own skin. It was bound into the friendship bracelets they plaited for each other, a magic seasoned with the scents of damp towels and pine needles and Anais-Anais perfume and Meatloaf crooning from the coppery ribbon of an overstretched tape. Her throat tightens and she feels the sudden sting of tears. Damn Martha. Damn, damn Martha! But then a finger prods her side. She turns to Jane, who jerks her head in Vivienne’s direction and pulls a collusive what-the-hell face.

So that’s it. Felicia frowns, the nostalgia dissipates, and once more she is sucked back into the undertow of their unraveling friendship. Martha is no longer that floating girl. Martha is a jealous loser who has clung on to Felicia as though she owns her. She always has to have Vivienne steal the show. Always has to rub it in. Well, not today. Not when Markham has been practicing so diligently. And with that thought, she mouths the words, and Markham strides forward like a puppet. A yowl, satanic, escapes from his guitar, for the briefest moment deafening out the cello. His preeminence is short-lived. Vivienne, sweat dripping down her pallid face, increases the speed of her bowing. Markham retorts—a screaming vibrato.

But now something else is affecting the air; a new contender has thrown his or her hat into the ring. Felicia feels it, something vicious, unschooled. She looks around frantically and to her amazement, Harrington pushes her way off the bleachers to stand near Markham. Well, well, thinks Felicia, Jane whelped a little witch. Harrington’s eyes are bloodshot, her cheeks so distended with blowing that they resemble two ping-pong balls. The noise emanating from her horn is anything but natural. The parents are writhing in their seats now, many with their hands clamped over their ears. A woman is throwing up in the corner, and based on a disturbance of bodies at the rear, someone has fainted. Jane, alone, sits as though manufactured of metal. “What must she make of this,” wonders Felicia, “of us?” but the thought lasts only a second before she counters the onslaught of both Harrington and Martha with a new behest on Markham.

* * *

Martha keeps her thumb and finger together. She is gasping for breath. The music is devastating, it is like being washed down a river, half-drowned, but it is also a slap in the face. All her discontent, her anger, and bewilderment at being dropped in favor of Jane, that awful, Jane with her BMW and her ostentatious house, is focused on her child. She, Martha, cannot contend with them, but Vivienne can. Vivienne will. She lifts her hands once more, and as she does so, the world explodes around her.

* * *

 Afterward, nobody can say for sure what happened.

 Those in the know assume it was Beatrice; it had the masterful touch of her work, but others suspect it may have been something more prosaic, a mere bolt of lightning. For Martha, the discharge knocks her back into herself. A blinding light fills the room, the foundations shake, and the window above Vivienne cascades in a supernova of glass shards.

Martha hears nothing but a surging roar. She tries to push past the parents in front of her, but everyone is on their feet now, the room a stampede of chaotic bodies. She shoves herself between two mothers, grabs the ponytail of a third, and through the gap sees with relief that Vivienne appears unharmed. Her daughter is frozen in place, her bow lifted in the air, for every string on her cello has snapped.  

“V!” she cries, “I am coming!”

She has no idea where she finds the strength, but in her fear the biology of her flesh transforms. She becomes a human tomahawk, a flaming meteor, scything her way through the furor.

And then she is at her daughter’s side. Vivienne reaches out, takes her hand. There is glass stuck in her hair, a myriad of jagged pieces, like a corona, a tiara. And beneath it Vivienne’s face has undergone a transformation. She looks as though her greatest wish has just come true.

“Honey!” Martha helps her to her feet, picking up the cello by its neck. The ruined strings protest wildly. Parents are pushing their way outside, and carried out by the tide, Martha sees that the rain has cleared and a shaft of sunlight has mined its way though the granite remnants of the clouds. She guides Vivienne onto the damp lawn and rests the cello on its spike. Vivienne turns her face up to the sky. Martha clings to the cello. Her hands, which moments before could have torn oak trees out of the ground, are shaking. She looks around, tries to take in the scene, and there, under a pear tree, stands Felicia, her fingers pinched around the brim of Markham’s nose.

Their eyes meet. Felicia’s mouth opens, and although no words are said, for a moment, everything becomes Just Right. But before Martha can gather herself, Jane marches up to Felicia with a Kleenex in her hand, and the spell is broken.

* * *

 The feeling of relief that overwhelms her when Martha appears almost brings Felicia to the ground. She thinks her knees might give way. She holds on to Markham, who groans thickly at her added weight, and stares at Martha and her newly minted glittering daughter. Weirdo. Her chest feels tight. But it is not fear that is affecting her but a sudden feeling of freedom, of exhilaration. She wants to knock her whining son to the ground and run over there and pull Martha in her arms and shriek with laughter. 

But before she can be so foolish, Jane, with her tempering efficiency, is back at her side. 

* * *

Of all the parents there that day, Jane is the only one who does not speculate on what might have happened. While she suspects that she may have witnessed something untoward, Jane is good at compartmentalizing things. Deep in her hippocampus an oiled lock rotates, and the memory of the morning and its attendant discomforts are partitioned away. Jane is exemplary at this, this abrogation; she is always called in to do the firing at work. Hell, they don’t call her the Tin Woman for nothing!

But still. She feels uneasy. For Harrington. A private school might be better. Pity though. She rather likes Felicia. Even that Martha. The woman exudes the desperation of a moth throwing itself against a light, but there is something likeable about her nonetheless. Would be far simpler if they could all be friends. Oh well.

She sits at her dressing table, tugs a comb through the metallic strands of her hair. The evening sun billows like a yellow sheet through the window. The world has been born anew. The light illuminates Jane’s bronzed arms, the iron determination of her chin, and cast there, just for a moment, she appears filled with warmth, alive. But Jane does not notice. Jane, happy woman that she is, remains resolutely unaware of magic, of such things.

 

 

 

Sam Grieve was born in Cape Town, and lived in Paris and London prior to settling down in Connecticut with her husband and two sons. She graduated from Brown University, received an MA in English from King’s College, London, and has worked as a librarian, a bookseller and an antiquarian book-dealer. Her stories, essays and poems have recently appeared in A cappella Zoo, Daily Science Fiction, Forge, PANK, The Saint Ann’s Review, and Southern Indiana Review, amongst others. Her work received a Notable recognition in The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2014, and she was nominated for the storySouth Million Writers Award 2015. She won the Broad River Review 2015 Rash Award for Fiction.