Little Miss Stradivarius – Elizabeth Childs
Mary must have felt this way. No one asked her, and no one asked me. Even so, when the baby stirred in my belly, humming its sweet vibrations through the wood of my stomach, it felt like the incarnation. Mary—a human impregnated by God. I, Veronica—a violin impregnated by man.
Well, not man. Woman. Lenora loved me since the day her father gave me to her. He stumbled into the pawnshop, still half-drunk from the night before. His knuckles were split and bloody. His grip was too tight when he picked me up, but he said, “What kind of violin is this? Is it any good? Need to make up to my daughter.”
The owner said, “No idea. Three hundred bucks.”
Lenora was ten. Her cheek was swollen when I first saw her, but she was beautiful with her bright green eyes, black hair, freckles all over. She hugged me to her chest and named me Veronica. I slept in bed with her that night. She whispered into my strings in the dark.
“We could go anywhere,” she said. “You’re beautiful enough for Chicago, Los Angeles, maybe even New York. We’ll get out of here together, Veronica. I’ll love you until you fall apart in my hands.”
I wanted to whisper back, “I love you, too.” It wasn’t until years later, after everything had gone wrong, that something at the base of my neck loosened, and I found my words at last. Those weren’t the words I said.
When she was younger, Lenora whispered to me, “Why would I ever, ever want a family?” Once she was grown, her mother asked her for years when she would find a nice guy, settle down, drink a bottle of wine some night and make her some grandbabies so she could visit all the time. Lenora always scoffed and rolled her eyes and said, “That’s just not what I’m doing with my life. There are other things besides babies, you know.”
I loved that. I was the other thing besides babies. Growing up, Lenora and I practiced for hours every night. She was not good for a long time, and the scratching and squeaking hurt both our ears, felt like sandpaper on my strings, but slowly, slowly, she learned how much rosin to use on the bow and how to avoid snapping the strings. She learned to press down gently with her chin. Every fingerprint she left in my varnish throbbed for hours with the residue of affection, and I wished she would run her fingers along my f-holes and breathe softly on my back.
Her father paid for violin lessons. She always had an excuse to lock the door to her room and play fast and loud to drown out her family downstairs.
One night, her father kicked her door down and snatched me out of her hands.
“Shut the fuck up!” he screamed. “All day and all night! I hate this fucking thing!”
He cocked his arm to smash me into the wall, and Lenora lunged. She punched against his swollen belly and bit down on his arm until he dropped me and threw her to the floor and stormed out. She picked me up. She cradled me and cried salty tears onto my strings. I hoped she would never let me go.
The day we received the appointment to the orchestra, Lenora was twenty-one. She packed three suitcases full of clothes, a handful of kitchen gadgets she stole from her mother’s kitchen—garlic press, corkscrew, bottle opener—and me. She folded her music stand and nestled me into my case.
Her mother said, “Someday you’ll realize your career isn’t everything. Family is everything, honey.”
Lenora slapped her.
She didn’t slap her hard. She just lost it around her parents sometimes. And Lenora always told people the truth, right to their face. She said, “I know you spent your whole life cutting grapes in half and delivering those poor country babies who couldn’t get to a real doctor fast enough, but I matter, for God’s sake. People see me. I have a career. A passion! Why don’t you go bother my brother about having grandkids for you? Oh, right, because he lives on your couch like a kicked puppy and couldn’t get a job at a Taco Bell if he tried.”
We left for New York.
What mattered first: Our hard-earned appointment to the New York Philharmonic, our New York City address, our one-bedroom one-bath full of hand-carved furniture. That her family stayed far away. With her first paycheck, she filled our minuscule apartment with Italian leather and French art and artisan glass-blown vases on their own individual shelves. Her credit cards wept in her wallet and cried, “Please, the swiping hurts.” She did not hear them. She did not stop.
After her first big concert, she bought herself the most beautiful red geraniums for the windowsills.
She told me later, “That florist with the face like a dried-up rose? She said, ‘These need lots of light. They’re better as an outdoor plant.’ As if I didn’t know that. They’re beautiful, though, aren’t they?”
The only light they received had to ricochet down the brick walls between two cramped apartment buildings. By the time the sun’s rays reached her window, they were thin and grayish like bathwater. The flowers grew right up against the glass, trying to capture any spare bit of warmth, but they looked happy enough, for a while. Sometimes she would press a fingernail into a leaf, not hard enough to break the skin—no, she never drew blood—but just hard enough to mark the flowers with a dark green crescent bruise.
It was a way to relieve frustration. Her job was so stressful. Her past was shot through with violence.
Her mother begged to visit for months.
Finally, Lenora said, “Fine, but just for the weekend.” I could tell, even if she never said it, even if her words were harsh sometimes, that she missed her family. Who wouldn’t? There was a soft spot in the center of her, and when she held me, it expanded and stretched outward through her skin and deep into my wood. She saved that seed of kindness just for me.
Her mother arrived with a bouquet of roses and said, “These are from your father.”
Lenora held them limply in one hand and did not look at them.
Her mother gave herself a tour of the apartment and then sat down and asked, “Could I send you a nice dining room set? None of these chairs even match, honey.”
Lenora said, “They’re not supposed to match. That’s the point.”
“Well, I suppose it’s interesting in a starving-artist kind of way.”
I held my breath. Her mother was great at poking where it hurt. She did it on purpose. I had seen it so many times at home.
This time, though, Lenora only smiled and poured two mugs of peppermint tea—her mother’s favorite—and they moved to the couch.
“Love this tea, Lenora.”
“Oh, so glad, I got it for you.”
“Very good tea.”
“Oh good, I’m glad.”
Her mother took the roses and picked a $700 vase off the wall, filled it with water, and set the roses on Lenora’s bedside table, all while she gossiped about Lenora’s cousin, Alyssa—
“—bless her heart, who divorced her husband, and now what will she do? All she knows how to do is knit. And for what? Yes, one time he was tipsy and got a little rough and stole just a tiny bit of her money, but who has a perfect marriage, anyway? Said she fell down the stairs, how obvious. But those bruises went away within two weeks, I tell you what, and her leg healed up just fine. He even apologized! How often do you get that? Because of a little hiccup, she throws her whole life away? She has a child to think about, for goodness’ sake. That little girl has music in her heart just like you did, but she’ll never have a chance. You think your father didn’t give me plenty of reasons to leave? Things weren’t quite perfect at our house, were they?”
Lenora scoffed. “Not quite perfect?”
“Oh, I know you and your brother got a slap here and there when your daddy was in one of his little moods. And yet, I stayed. It’s called commitment. That poor child will grow up in poverty with no father now. Sad! If every woman got divorced when her husband misbehaved, society would collapse. Then what would we do, Lenora? You young women think you have it so tough. You have no idea how bad things could get.”
Somewhere deep inside me, a question nagged. Bad for whom, exactly? I pushed it away.
Lenora said, “And you wonder why I don’t want a relationship.”
“Well, I know you’re serious about your career. Maybe that’s the only way for you. Some women can have it all, and some women can’t.”
“I’m the second-best violinist on the East Coast.”
“I know. You’re right. But who is that lovely girl? Annadonis Ling?”
“Adamaris Ling.” Lenora rubbed her neck.
I knew where this was going—this old wound again.
“We’re performing a duet together in a few months, for your information,” Lenora said.
“Well, that’s nice. She’s the first-best violinist on the East Coast, isn’t that right, and she has a husband and two children.”
If I could have, I would have slapped her, too. Instead, I tightened my strings, but they made no sound. I would have said, “Lenora is a brilliant musician! Don’t talk to her like that. Take your cellulite-stuffed thighs back to Podunk-Nowhere, and leave us alone.”
Lenora had said that to her once—the cellulite-stuffed thighs bit. I thought it was awfully clever.
When her mother finally left, Lenora sunk into the sofa and closed her eyes. She opened a bottle of scotch and knocked back shots until her eyes were watery and red. She stretched out her fingers. We hadn’t practiced for three days. She was exhausted, I could tell, but she peeled herself off the couch and pulled me out of the case. Her callouses were softer against my strings, and I could almost feel the fingerprints again, like I had when she was young.
Lenora arranged her sheet music. She scratched the bow across my strings before adjusting. I winced.
Hours later, our neighbor banged on his ceiling and yelled, “Shut the fuck up! It’s midnight! And do you have to play the same damn lines six thousand times in a row?”
We had quit feeling bad about making noise ages ago, but Lenora stopped anyway. Not because he asked—I knew that much. It was late. She was tired, and she must have known, even without asking, that I was tired, too.
I dreamed of my mother, a nobody violin from a fly-over state who gave birth to me in an attic. She was alone, and I was alone, and we were alone together. The owners didn’t find us until thick, soft blankets of dust had deadened our sound and dulled our varnish. Our strings had loosened and tangled as we huddled together in the dark.
They ripped us apart. For me, the pawnshop. For her? Well.
I woke up screeching in the quiet of our apartment. It was the first sound I had ever made on my own, and my strings tingled under the soft lining of my case. Lenora stirred in her room. She threw off the covers and mumbled, “What the hell?” The vase of roses on her bedside table shattered on the floor, and her bedroom light flicked on.
“Damn it,” she said. Glass pieces scraped together as she picked them up, and then, “Aah! No. No, no, no.”
She ran to the bathroom. The water ran. Lenora groaned.
Five minutes later, Lenora stood behind me, listening. She lifted me out of my case and held me up to her ear. I couldn’t make a sound when I tried. “You’re so beautiful,” she whispered. She ran her fingers over my body. I took pride in it—flat and silky, taut strings along my neck.
She held me against her chest and held her breath. My wood warmed against her skin. I wanted her to wrap her thick hair around my like a blanket and swallow me whole.
She pulled me away. She lifted one hand above me and pressed hard into a new bandage on one finger until a drop of warm blood crept out and fell with a soft tap onto my face. She let out her breath and I sensed a smile spread across her face in the dark.
She lowered her lips until they hovered above my surface, and she blew softly on the bead of blood until it rolled into the f-hole and disappeared. Something new stirred within me, and I quivered in her hand. My solid wood body softened and loosened. My strings vibrated in deep, sensual, panting tones as she ran the tip of her tongue around my f-hole. I arched and shuddered. Lenora kissed my neck, my scroll, my tuning pegs, one by one. She breathed softly on my back, and I shivered under the warm, wet fog.
She tucked me back into my case. I wanted her to carry me to bed, to press me to her belly, to stroke my strings in her sleep.
Before she went to bed, she dumped the bedside roses into the kitchen sink. The garbage disposal roared and chopped them all to bits.
Long after the lights were out and the apartment was silent again, I lay naked and shining on my back, my scroll like coiffed hair. My neck stretched seductively away from my body, and the curves on both sides scooped up and under—full breasts, soft buttocks. I had never thought of myself in that way. Beautiful, yes. But tender and open and alive? That was something new.
In the morning, Lenora pulled a few gray strands out of her hair like worn-out strings. I wanted to tell her not to. They were beautiful. She was beautiful. We were beautiful together.
We stumbled through our day’s work, fingers slipping off of strings, playing the wrong notes, missing notes altogether. When we got home, I wanted to curl up with Lenora and practice until midnight. She stroked my back, but she did not play. Instead, she rubbed her temples and took two Aspirin. She stood me up on a kitchen chair while she made a bowl of fettuccine. I sat across from her as she ate.
She reached over and stroked my neck. Then she licked her thumb and wiped away a smudge. “I saw the whole flute section staring at you today,” she said. Her face twisted. “You know, Stradivariuses—the really beautiful ones—they have more of a classical beauty. They don’t need layers and layers of polish. When you glimpse your reflection in them, it isn’t warped and stretched. Have you ever seen one? They’re a deeper color. Not brassy. But it’s okay. I love you so much, in spite of everything.”
The words were familiar. Her father had said something like that, years ago. I had let her cry on me that night.
A few minutes later, she said, “You look so tired.”
I was tired. She was right.
“I only mention it at all because Adamaris Ling plays a gorgeous violin. Not a Stradivarius, of course, but something just as elegant. Can’t you picture it? She’s probably sitting down to dinner right now in her fancy Tribeca apartment with her hot-shot investment banker husband and their two gap-toothed eight-year-olds. They’re laughing and eating their rack of lamb and buying plane tickets to Europe with her husband’s piles of money.”
She waited. I waited.
“Just something to think about,” Lenora said. “I doubt Ada Ling’s violin looks tired at the dinner table.”
Lenora dropped her dishes in the sink with a clatter. She smiled a cold smile. “Seems like one of us could use some beauty rest,” she said. She locked me in my case. The shower ran, and the lights turned off. I was almost asleep when she opened the case again and said, “I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry.”
She stroked my strings and left the case wide open that night.
I lay awake that night and felt whorish and vulgar and cheap. I wanted to cover my f-holes and hide them away from the world. Before she left for New York, she told her brother, “Are you really so weak? Sad things happened to you. So what? Get up, get a job. Be a grown-up, for fuck’s sake.” Sometimes her words hurt a little, but she was always right. She loved people, deep down, and she loved them so much that she had to tell them the truth, no matter what. She didn’t care about herself or what people thought of her. Only about others, all the time. How fortunate to be loved by someone so honest. And where would I be without her?
I watched the next day—how Ada’s violin moved effortlessly under her touch. Lenora missed a note because I was watching Ada’s fingers fly over strings that never slipped. I wanted to tell her, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” but I couldn’t.
When the whispers had begun to trickle through the orchestra that the famous Adamaris Ling would join as the concertmaster, it was all anyone could talk about.
“A prodigy,” they said.
“Just picked up a violin one day and now look where she is.”
“Grew up in some dusty alley with her nobody mother in L.A. Can you believe it? Somebody discovered her in an after-school program.”
“It’s like a miracle. Like finding a Stradivarius in your attic.”
“And how beautiful. No wonder she landed such a catch of a husband.”
“She had twins, and you’d never know it.”
Lenora said, “Don’t listen to them.” We practiced and practiced and hoped they would appoint Lenora instead. When it was officially announced, Ada floated into the room on a cloud with a smile as wide as her violin bow, her hair perfectly coiffed. She took her concertmaster seat and said “Oh, lovelies, my daughters were up all night, sick as puppies,” and then didn’t miss a note all day.
Three weeks later, during rehearsal, we missed our cue to play. Everyone saw. That night, Lenora reached across the dinner table. I imagined her stroking my face and saying, “Oh Veronica, we did our very best.”
She plucked a string, hard, and it snapped. It didn’t hurt too much, really. I know she didn’t mean to break it, but I shrank from her touch as she said, “I’m sorry, Veronica.”
A month after that, we missed a handful of notes during our evening practice. She dropped me on the floor.
She said, “I’m sorry, Veronica. So sorry! I didn’t mean it. You know that. You know me.”
She cried herself to sleep, and the next morning, she picked me up gently and rubbed expensive polish into my wood and fitted me with brand new strings, and I felt more beautiful than I had in years.
It had been a month since that drop of blood slipped inside my f-hole in the dark. We practiced until the downstairs neighbor delivered his good-night string of profanity—night after night, the same refrain. Each day we practiced our duet with Ada, over and over until the notes made me nauseous. I hoped no one would see how worn-out I was looking.
I knew what was happening before Lenora did. My strings tingled with the breath of new life flowing through them. It was tiny at first, then steadier and steadier until I could hear the baby vibrations hidden inside my own music. It twitched under the surface. I felt it at night when I was half-asleep. Of course Lenora would discover it, and one night, as I sat at the table for dinner, she couldn’t deny it anymore.
“What is wrong with you?” Lenora hissed.
She grabbed me roughly and jammed me under her chin. She pulled me away. “See?” She held me up to the light. “There.”
She ran her fingers over my body. There was a bulge near the chin rest where it was flat and shiny just weeks ago. I had tried to hide it for days, struggling against the wood to hold myself in place, to remain the right shape. But now it was unmistakable.
“You hardly fit under my chin anymore,” she said. “Don’t you have any pride?”
She was scared. Who wouldn’t be? She snapped the neck of a geranium when she watered them that night.
After that, she left me home. I understood. I couldn’t embarrass her at work.
She brought home a pristine violin from the orchestra’s collection with slick wood and tight strings. I couldn’t help it—I cried from the dark corner as I watched her play. She smiled. She sat up straighter. She ran her fingers along its sleek, tight, pretty little body. She needed to play. It wasn’t her fault. Musicians need freedom. They aren’t built to play one violin forever.
The baby moved, and as it twisted inside of me, I felt a breath of anger curling up, hot and acrid. I squeezed my strings and my f-holes tight to hold it in, and it seeped deep into my wood. I thought it had disappeared.
Little by little, my wood swelled, and the varnish cracked into a thousand spidery veins. My strings splayed so far apart that the bridge nearly fell, and when Lenora tried to play me (she still tried once in a while), I shuddered. The notes bloated. Weak.
She shook me. She tried to look inside. She poked sharp pencils down my f-holes, and I screeched when she hit a bladder of soft wood. But she was trying. She rubbed polish into my cracking varnish.
She said, “Just look at yourself. You think I have to keep you around? There are a million violins better-looking than you.”
I said nothing.
Lenora’s mother called one night. Lenora stuffed the borrowed violin into its case and slid it under the couch, her face hot. She turned on the speakerphone and said, “Hello?” as she poured a bowl of cereal.
“Phyllis Meacham knows a nice boy up there in New York somewhere, or maybe New Jersey, here’s his number, call him.”
“Thank you,” Lenora said. She didn’t write it down.
“Bertha was asking the other day—do you remember when her son Tigger was born in our living room? He’s almost twenty-five now. Very handsome. He has his own lawn-mowing business, apparently.”
“How could I forget, Mother? That was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.”
I agreed. I was there. Lenora had clutched me to her eleven-year-old chest and tried to leave, but her mother said, “No, Lenora, stay! This is the miracle of life. You can’t miss it!”
I smelled peppermint as I thought of it—Lenora’s mother massaging the groaning woman’s perineum with oil, stroking the woman’s back as she shook and moaned, peppermint tea wafting through the air, the moment of silence before the last great push. The sharp, iron-like smell of blood soaking into the carpet.
“Just wait until you have a baby,” her mother said. “You’ll learn so much about yourself.”
“That’s the worst reason in the whole world to have a baby,” Lenora said.
Her mother sighed. “Oh, did you hear? Alyssa moved herself and that poor girl of hers into the women’s shelter across town. I asked that baby what she thought, if she wanted to come live with me, and do you know what she said?”
“She said, ‘We’re having an adventure. Just the two of us.’ How sad. Are you coming home for Christmas?”
“No,” Lenora said, and she hung up.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a loud screech, pain ripping down my sides. A light flicked on in the bedroom, then the hall, then the living room, and Lenora stood behind me. My belly stretched and contracted. My strings scratched and rasped. I panted and then held my breath.
“Oh my God,” Lenora whispered.
I let out my breath and screeched again, louder than before. Lenora put a hand over my strings and the noise stopped, but I couldn’t breathe. I arched my neck and twisted out of her hand and screamed again.
Lenora laid me on the floor and knelt beside me. I wanted her to rub my back and breathe softly on my face, but she only watched.
My belly constricted. My f-holes stretched wider and wider with each contraction. My stomach was tight and full. The baby moved and rammed against the inside, probing and searching for the way out. My strings screamed in frantic broken chords that jumped an octave and swelled louder and louder. My belly was a hard, hot ball—pulsing, pulsing—like the beating of a heart. Something pushed through the widening hole. A tiny scroll, pale and soft, encased in a sac of amber mucus peeked through the opening, pale and soft. Lenora reached one finger inside and touched it. I shrieked. The sac burst and spilled out in a gush, out and over my sides and into the rug. It seeped into Lenora’s jeans.
“Oh my God—I’m sorry,” she said.
The room smelled of something sharp and deep and sickening. Rosin and violin polish and the scent of wet wood. A hint of iron. From the windowsills, the musty scent of dead geraniums, covered in crescent bruises.
I panted and screeched. The downstairs neighbor yelled, “Did you forget how to play? Shut the fuck up, woman!”
Lenora stomped on the floor above his head. “Dick! You want to come up here and try this?”
My scratching rose to a scream.
The soft baby tip was out, but that was all. With every push, the scroll inched forward, then fell back down—no progress.
Something was wrong. Fear swelled in me like a growing note.
Lenora reached three fingers inside and grasped the baby’s neck, but the body was wedged inside. It hurt. It was ripping me apart. I moaned and shook. Lenora twisted and pulled at the baby’s neck, and I yelped. The holes were stretched tight and thin. Any wider, and I would split apart. Lenora massaged the edges of the holes with her fingertips, and then, with a deep breath and twisted face, with the tip of her tongue. She picked me up. She cradled me in her arms and stroked my back, and I wanted to melt into her and disappear. My wood relaxed, my strings loosened, and slowly, slowly, the holes began to widen again. They melted into one gaping hole which swelled to the size of a fist. My bridge and strings fell, and Lenora swept them to the side and laid me down again. Lenora held the baby’s neck steady as the rounds of its shoulders pressed against the hole.
Then, everything stopped. I held my breath in the moment of silence, like a pause before the last great crescendo.
Lenora ran to the kitchen and brought back the jar of loose peppermint tea and held it helplessly for a moment. She set it on the floor and opened it. I breathed in the peppermint notes.
The contractions washed over me, stronger and faster. In one forceful push, the baby’s shoulders were through.
I arched my neck. I pushed.
Lenora whispered, “Almost there, love.”
I pushed again, and with a great and terrible shriek, the wood split. Pain shot through me. The baby burst out, fast and slippery and warm. Lenora caught the body with both hands. She lifted it, but the baby was still attached by something. She tugged, and I groaned. Lenora ran her finger along the baby’s back and found the wet string. I knew what it was like I know music by heart—a baby violin bow, thin and soft and alive.
Lenora twisted and pinched it off, and the baby was free. She pulled the baby into her arms and held it close to me so I could see. Its wood was translucent and spongy. Thin blue veins squirmed just under the surface. Lenora wiped away the goop.
“Absolutely gorgeous,” she said. She whisked it up and away from me as she stood, and my heart tightened. She rocked it to sleep, and she said, “This is what I’ve been missing all along. All these worthless things around me, this city, this job I thought I wanted. I didn’t know anything about love.”
I was too tired, too broken, to feel the sting of her words.
Lenora kissed the soft wood, and then she made the promise that every parent makes—she said, “I’ll keep you safe, sweetheart. No matter what. I’ll protect you with my life.”
I wanted to say, “Shh, shh, darling. Don’t cry. This is a new adventure for both of us.” But I couldn’t find my voice. Lenora traced the lacy blue veins as they twisted under the baby’s varnish. I shivered on the floor, my belly still distended, my f-holes dilated and torn apart. I oozed amber fluid into the Persian rug. I ached for my baby. Lenora didn’t mean any harm, I’m sure, when she moved me into a dark corner of the room. Babies are so distracting, you know.
Lenora called in to work the next day. “Sprained my wrist,” she said. “Oh yes, it should heal up just fine. I’ll be out for a few weeks, though.”
She cradled my baby in her arms and counted its strings. It slept terribly—screeching all night long. At first, she wanted the baby in bed with her, but after a few nights of constant noise, she let the baby sleep near me. Its strings were fragile, thin and gray, like worn-out strands of hair.
“What should I call you?” Lenora cooed. “Your mother is a nobody, no fancy brand name. but here you are, a miracle! And so lovely. Like a Stradivarius. Just as pretty as one, anyway. Stradivarius Junior? No, you’re a girl. I can tell. How about Little Miss Stradivarius? Has a nice ring, don’t you think, Veronica?”
I didn’t answer. I would have named her Grace, but no one asked me. Just like Mary. No one asked her, either. I only lay sticky and cracked and stretched out wide—a wreck. Destroyed. But, my baby. It was as if I had known nothing about love before. I called her “Gracie” every night, all night long, and hummed to her as she cried and stirred in her sleep next to me.
Lenora laid the baby’s bow flat on a windowsill to dry. She cleaned out the baby’s crevices with Q-Tips and makeup brushes. And the baby grew every day—the strings stronger, the wood harder and darker until the veins were almost invisible.
She whispered, “How could I ever leave you? I thought that old violin was beautiful. I didn’t know anything at all.”
She thought I couldn’t hear, but I heard everything. I felt smaller with every word. It wasn’t kind. But she still held my baby softly. Gracie was safe, and that’s what mattered most.
Lenora’s mother called. Lenora ignored it until her mother left a message that said, “Oh, Lenora, your brother got himself arrested. Call me back.”
Lenora swallowed and dialed and put her phone on speaker. “What did he do?”
“Your brother? I don’t understand it. He sits around for months doing nothing, and then, out of nowhere, he snaps and gives your father seven stitches on his face.”
“Just tell me what happened.”
“Oh, I don’t really know the details. Your father had a few drinks—nothing serious, but he was a little irritated. I heard raised voices in the den while I was cooking dinner. Some roughhousing, just boys being boys, you know, but the TV fell over. And a lamp. I couldn’t hear too well over my chicken frying.”
Lenora balled her hands into fists. “What happened, Mother? Do you have any actual idea?”
“Well, I guess he hit your father in the face with something. Whatever your father said, I’m sure he was kidding. Your brother’s so lazy he can’t even figure out when something’s a joke. And do you think I’m going to bail him out? Heavens, no. Can you imagine?”
I could imagine. I had seen it enough. Slurred insults, her father’s bloodshot eyes, inanimate objects thrown hard in hate. The smell of crushed glass and rank breath and the imprints of heavy fingers around her brother’s neck. Her brother had told Lenora when they were young, “We’re going to get out of here. Both of us, together, as soon as we can.”
But Lenora—I had forgotten this part for years—she held me tight and laughed at him and said, “One of us will, at least.”
It had seemed funny then. I don’t remember why.
Lenora looked sick. Sometimes, when we play a piece together, we’re thinking the exact thing at the same time. It was like that now.
She yelled into the phone. “How can you be so fucking blind, mother? He’s your baby. I was your baby! How can you stand by and watch this happen?”
“Lenora! You and your brother are both so ungrateful. Do you have any idea what I went through to keep our family together? And where do you think you would be without your father? Who paid for your music lessons, Little Miss Second-Best on the East Coast? Who bought you that violin?”
Lenora said nothing.
“Well,” her mother said. “I just thought you’d want to know. You and your brother were thick as thieves once upon a time. Before you got too good for all of us.”
Lenora threw her phone across the room and screamed, flung her coat over her shoulder, and slammed the door behind her.
Lenora did not return home until late that night. I whispered songs to Gracie. I used every drop of my energy to reach my neck the three inches between us and rub my scroll against her tiny one. The apartment was calm and quiet.
Lenora flung open the door and stumbled across the threshold. Her eyes were red and watery. The baby hummed, asleep, beautiful. Lenora ground her teeth and crossed the room in three giant steps. She grabbed me by the neck. Shook me back and forth. She glared at me, but not at me. Her scotch-soaked breath fogged my face. She twisted and pulled at my tuning pegs until they broke. I shuddered in pain at each one.
She screamed, “Not quite perfect? I’ll show you not quite perfect, you motherfucker! How does this feel?”
She lifted me with two hands over her head. I squeezed my eyes shut. She swung me into a blown-glass vase, then another, and another, until the room glittered with broken glass.
A moment of silence.
She smashed me on the coffee table. My body split in two and exploded in pain, and I fell to pieces in her hands. She dropped me at her feet and sank to her knees. The pain enveloped me. As I slipped into darkness, she gathered my pieces into her arms and cried, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Far in the distance, past the weak beating of my heart, Gracie made terrified, high-pitched noises from the dark corner of the room.
I could not see, could not feel. I could only hear faintly as if through water.
A bell tinkled overhead.
I knew the voice that greeted us. Lenora had taken me to her luthier for a minor repair years ago.
“It’s a long story,” Lenora said before the luthier could ask. “I fell down the stairs with it.”
How obvious, I thought.
The luthier was silent.
“Just try, please,” Lenora said. “I’ll pay whatever. It has sentimental value. It can’t be the worst you’ve seen.”
The luthier sighed loudly. “No, it isn’t.”
Years before—even months before, I would have thought how lucky I was that Lenora would fix me. My mother, after all—they dropped her straight into the trash. Now, all I thought was: You’d be surprised how many violins fall down the stairs. Who were these other violins, treated even more terribly than me?
When Lenora picked me up weeks later, the luthier had glued my body back together with thin strips of wood and glue, my distended belly sanded down flat, the f-holes patched and re-carved. She had replaced and restrung my strings and reset the bridge. But the cracks were still there, filled and covered with varnish, but visible like dark veins running through the wood.
“It will sound different now,” the luthier said. “Not concert-quality anymore, but playable.”
Lenora paid the bill and muttered for days about spending so much for a useless instrument. The words cut through my lingering fog, sunk into my wood. They burrowed into the filled cracks until I was packed full her disgust, until it became mine. Now, I knew for sure. I could play the music back to her, note for note, no lying, no muting, no softening of angry screeching. She was not kidding, and she was not kind.
I thought for a moment I had found my voice. I twisted my strings into a tight arrangement and tried to say, “How do you think you got all that money in the first place?”
But all that came out was a tortured shriek.
My baby grew, and one day, Lenora gasped when she saw it and said, “My, my. You’re not a baby anymore, are you?” Gracie’s wood was so shiny Lenora could see her reflection in it. She was a full-grown violin now, or close enough, and Lenora didn’t hesitate. She put her under her chin and played. The sound was fresh and light and eager. She was beautiful. Lenora’s smile made me sick.
The next day, she tucked Gracie into my violin case and took her to work.
She told me when she came home, “They loved her. Couldn’t stop staring. Ada said, ‘It’s beautiful. Where did it come from?’ I said, ‘Nowhere.’”
She would play Grace in the final concert of the year, but she brought me along to watch.
“Don’t want you to miss your baby’s performance,” she said.
Perhaps she meant it as kindness. Maybe it was meant to hurt. But I did want to see Gracie, even if she was playing my role.
The duet featured Mrs. Concertmaster Adamaris Ling and Miss Lenora Russell on the violin. They played a delicate call and response, back and forth, over and over. Two roles, one song. The song, they had rehearsed six thousand times. The roles, well. They had practiced those for generations. Lenora stumbled only once—the E string slipped out of her grasp. I watched and listened from under her chair. I tensed at the note. I wanted to tear my strings off and wrap them around my baby and carry her far from the truth.
When she had played the last note, Lenora sat down and whispered viciously into Grace’s scroll, “You did that on purpose.” She twisted a tuning peg until I could hear the string stretched much too tight, until Gracie whimpered, and then swallowed and closed her eyes and said, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. That was lovely, my dear.”
I wanted to squeeze Lenora’s neck and leave marks all over her and ask, “How do you like it? How does that feel?” I wanted to whisk my baby away from all of this, take her away to a dark and dusty place where no one ever would hurt her again.
When it was all over, the dazzling Ada Ling smiled her wide, white smile as the applause swelled and faded. But when Ada stood and shook Lenora’s hand, I saw something unmistakable, something that hardened my stomach into a knot, something so very obvious—the shadow of a bruise on Ada’s upper arm, just under her glittering sleeve, in the shape of heavy fingers.
Lenora saw it, too.
That night, instead of celebrating, she cried. She drank, and she looked at her own hands as they shook. She picked me up and sobbed and stroked me and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, Veronica. I don’t know how this happened.”
She picked up Grace.
She pressed her fingertips softly into the wood. They would throb with heat the way they had for me, years ago, before I knew. Before I knew the stark and obvious end.
I twisted my strings together. Something in my neck loosened, and I screamed, finally, finally!—“Don’t touch her, you motherfucker! Never touch her again.”
Lenora set her down at my side and backed away with tears on her cheeks.
She swallowed the last of the scotch. She wrote a letter and addressed it to her brother and stumbled down the stairs to mail it. When she returned, she flicked off the lights. In the bathroom, pills rattled out of bottles, and then more, and more, and more. I wrapped my loosened strings around my baby’s coils like hands over ears. The apartment grew quiet and heavy, and the silence crept deeper with the night, without even the sound of breath.
Lenora’s brother stood in the living room three days later. Her mother pulled skillets out of the cabinets in the kitchen and drank peppermint tea and filled cardboard boxes with belongings. Her brother took pictures of the Italian leather furniture and the French art.
“What did Lenora write to you?” her mother asked through tears. “You owe me that much, at least.”
He sighed. “She said, ‘We never really escaped, did we? Either one of us.’ She sent me a note for someone else, too.”
Her mother huffed and dumped silverware into a box.
He found me. He found Grace. He tucked us in a bed of soft packing peanuts and bubble wrap. He slipped Lenora’s note inside. We huddled together—the nobody mother and Little Miss Stradivarius—in our dusty cardboard box. I twisted my strings tightly together and whispered to Grace, “Let’s go on a great adventure, my dear, just the two of us.”
He taped the box shut. A Sharpie scratched on the cardboard.
Two days later, Lenora’s cousin Alyssa sliced open the tape. Her music-hearted little girl screeched with joy and cradled us in her arms. Our wood warmed against her skin.
Alyssa read the note:
“Please, for God’s sake, take these. I didn’t know how bad things could get.”
Elizabeth Childs is an emerging writer and an Anselm Society member artist. Her work is forthcoming in Ponder Review, and she was a finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards. Elizabeth Childs lives in Colorado with her husband and two small children.