2 July 2006 | Vol. 6, No. 2
Requiem for Sammy
The day her husband died, her period stopped. It just shut itself off and left her, left the blood building and boiling inside, fermenting into this rage that she could only release at the piano. It wasn't supposed to happen like that; it wasn't supposed to be that easy for her body to betray her, to take itself away and leave her feeling like she was nothing but a bunch of bones trying to make a way through the world. But that's what happened, and she had to convince herself of that fact, the same way she had to convince herself that Sammy was gone.
There was no warning. If there had been, she might have been able to prepare. But if there's anything she's learned, it's that the body doesn't always obey the will. Inside, you could be screaming in anger so hot your eyes burn. Inside, you could be curled up small as a fetus. Inside, you could be clawing at your veins trying to get them to stop pumping sorrow into your lungs. But outside, your body won't move, won't bend, won't even flinch at the slaps you give yourself every morning now to get the tears to flow.
So this is what she decided on the morning she counted exactly three drops of tears in the sink and realized there were less and less each day, though the bruises on her face were getting darker and darker. This is what she decided when she told her body it wasn't going to betray her anymore; she decided she was going to get her blood back, and with every tear, she'd get back more.
Sammy had bought the Yamaha upright for her with whatever money was left after doctors' bills. "You can't take it with you," he joked.
She played him Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-sharp minor; he said the notes sounded like something between the end of a laugh and the start of a cry. She played whenever he asked, and as he got sicker, he asked that she play naked. He liked to trace the angles of her back as she swept her hands over the keys, moving his fingers up along her spine to her shoulders, until a finger rested on her wrist and caressed the vein that swelled and pulsed. They fucked on the bench almost every day until he got too weak, then they called it making love. And the day he died, she'd been shivering while playing, dragging her fingers mechanically over the keys, pounding towards a crescendo that was louder than it should have been.
He'd lain back on the couch, set the metronome on his chest, over his heart, so he could be her rhythm section. She hadn't noticed that his breathing was slower. She hadn't noticed his hand trying to punch the sofa to get her attention. She hadn't noticed anything, and by the time she finished, there was only the metronome beating.
She didn't want the piano in the house anymore. Didn't want the quietness that weighed the silence and made it so heavy. She despised it, hated the oily sleekness of it. She wanted to gut it, disembowel it, and throw it away. The cover of its underbelly was flung aside now, its insides splayed, obscene. She knelt and reached into its stomach and raked a serrated knife over the C-sharp, the grating of steel on wire was like the hacking of a jackal. She knew what she would do. She'd cut one wire, one note from the Rachmaninoff, and force herself to bleed. Treble clef to cut deep, bass clef to stretch the cut, push edges of skin away so the blood could flow.
She started three octaves above middle C and pushed the knife against the thin string. It sprang at its release and twanged the air, and soon, it was strung tight around her wrist. She set the metronome to largo, nodded with each deliberate click, and sawed back and forth on the same vein Sammy used to love so much. The wire dug deep past hair, and slid through skin. She liked the feel of the string on her wrist, liked how it turned her arm into a distorted instrument, liked the way it forced her body to obey the laws of physics. She smiled, imagined her shivers were nothing more than vibrato, and pushed wire deeper into flesh.
In the end, there was no way for the bleeding to stop, no way for the tears to refuse her, no way for her to do anything but sink into the couch, metronome over her heart, and wait for everything to stop beating while she laughed, cried, "Sammy," then begged, "Sammy, Sammy, Sammy." And she swam in her own blood, finally a woman again.
About the author:
Maaza Mengiste is a current MFA candidate in Fiction at New York University, where she also teaches and serves as the International Editor of the Washington Square Review. She is the recepient of the Avery Hopwood Literary Award, has been named a finalist for Glimmer Train Press' Short Story Award for New Writers, and was selected as one of their Top 25 Finalists in the Fiction Open Competition. She has also won grants for filmmaking and photography. Maaza is currently completing a novel that takes place during the Communist revolution in Ethiopia, and she is writing a collection of short stories based on musicians.