A Mahler Song
When the bleeding didn’t stop and got heavier, she started to worry. She sat on the toilet, thinking she needed to urinate, and a cup of blood poured out. She was terrified of telling her parents. They already were disparaging of her, telling her she was lazy and would never amount to anything because she was fifteen and had never had a job. She would be going to hell, too, they kept saying because she had stopped reading the Bible. But she trusted her Uncle Mat, and after the second bleed that afternoon she called him and rode her bicycle to his tiny house, just a few blocks away in their small town in New Jersey.
Uncle Mat took her to the emergency room. He showed no anger or disapproval when the doctor told them she was pregnant but having a miscarriage, the fetus already dead and on the way out of her body. They kept her in the E.R. for observation, and the doctor told them she would be discharged after she stopped bleeding. After three hours of continuous bleeding the gynecologist who examined her said she had to have emergent surgery. Her uterus was trying to push the fetus out through the placenta, which was in the wrong place and blocking the dead fetus’ exit out of her body. Without surgery, she would bleed to death.
“We need consent from the parents ASAP,” the nurse had said while she hurriedly put a gown on Amanda and took off her socks. Uncle Mat called her mom, his sister.
“Your parents aren’t coming,” Uncle Mat said when he had ended the call. “They’ll give consent over the phone, but they said they don’t want any part of this.”
Afterward, in the recovery room, the doctor had spoken to them. Uncle Mat sat close to her bed and held her hand.
“Unfortunately, there was a large loss of blood, and we had to act quickly,” the doctor said. “The cervix had to be enlarged surgically to get the placenta and the fetus out, and future pregnancies will be impossible.”
The news left her speechless, in a convulsion of weeping. Uncle Mat picked her shoulders off the bed and hugged her to his chest.
Amanda had always looked forward to the day when she could have a baby of her own. She couldn’t help caress the cheeks of babies in prams on the streets and had to restrain herself from scooping them up out of their carriage to hug them. At home, she had wanted a temporary substitute, a pet rabbit to care for, but her parents had never allowed it. She had spent hours in pet shops looking at rabbits and hamsters.
It was at a pet shop on a Saturday morning that she had met Ronnie, who was looking at puppies. He was her age. “I like dogs better,” he had said when she showed him the rabbit she wanted. “But my mom has a cat at home, so I can’t have a dog. The cat’s all alone now, and my mom won’t be home till later,” he smiled. He had a chipped front tooth. “It’s only a couple of blocks away. Do you want to go see it?”
She had loved the silky fur of Ronnie’s cat, and the purring when she stroked it was affection being returned. On that first visit to his house, she had sat on an ottoman in the living room with the cat on her lap. When Ronnie stood close behind her, and she felt his pelvis pushing into her back, she didn’t move away. She liked feeling the firm bulge between his thighs on her shoulder blade. When she pushed back gently against it and he exhaled in pleasure, it was like the purring of the cat. Every visit thereafter, for several weeks, they made progress in exploring their bodies. When at last he lowered her jeans, she didn’t resist, and she got what passed for the affection she craved.
Her parents didn’t visit her in the hospital, and when Uncle Mat drove her home to her parents’ shabby house, three days later, there was a suitcase packed with her clothes by the front door. “We don’t want sinners here,” her mother said. Her father walked away from the door and into the kitchen. “Tell that faggot and that whore to get out of here,” he yelled into the hallway.
Amanda moved into Uncle Mat’s small spare bedroom. He had always lived alone, and had few friends, devoting himself solely to listening and studying vocal music when he wasn’t working. Her mother’s much older brother, he had remained single and had gone to a music school as a young man. In exchange for her room and board, Amanda would clean the modest house every Saturday afternoon while he listened to the opera radio broadcast. Before the opera, he always played songs by Mahler.
When she began to understand the patterns of the vocal music, she tried to sing along. Uncle Mat smiled with pleasure, not derision, as her parents would have.
“You were born with good vocal equipment, Mandy,” Uncle Mat said one afternoon as she tried to sing along to a familiar aria from Carmen. It was his nickname for her.
“Equipment? You mean my voice box?”
“It’s called the larynx,” he said, pointing to his throat, “and it’s more than just that —it’s also your lungs and sinuses that are helping you make that sound.”
“Yes. They act as an echo chamber for the sounds coming from your vocal cords. It’s called resonance.”
“You really mean that?” Coming from Uncle Mat, a respected music teacher at the local college, this was an enormous compliment, not something she was used to.
“It’s a gift, Mandy. You’re either born with the anatomy or you’re not.”
He had an upright piano and started teaching her basic singing technique and music theory. It was a new language for her, and something she could do well. School had always been a struggle for her.
“Breathe here,” he would say as she came to the end of a line. “Ignore the phone,” he would yell through the ringing as he continued on the piano. “It’s only you and the music now.”
After a few weeks, Uncle Mat said, “Your voice is more powerful than I thought. I’m out of my depth already,” he said, shaking his head as he closed the lid of the piano. “Would you like to take lessons from a colleague of mine? It’s the only way you’re going to progress if you’re interested.”
She knew her parents had not been sending any money for her upkeep, all her expenses having been absorbed by Uncle Mat, who also gave her an allowance.
“I would love to, but I don’t think mom and dad would help pay for it,” she said, gathering her music. “They weren’t even keen on college.”
“Let’s not worry about that,” he said as he moved to his pink armchair to read the paper. “I’ll take care of it for the time being.”
She went to him, put her arms around his thin shoulders, and kissed his pale, smooth cheek. She kept her lips on his skin as she wept, felt free from her parents’ mediocrity, and began to see a path with a purpose.
The voice lessons continued through high school, and all her grades improved. In her senior year, Uncle Mat arranged for an audition at a highly respected music school in New York, an hour away. When she was accepted with a partial scholarship, Uncle Mat paid for the rest of the tuition and her living expenses.
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see my own niece have a singing career,” he said when she began to protest about being a continuing burden. “Think of it as a vicarious accomplishment for me, something I would have done if I had had the talent.”
Once she had started at the renowned school in New York, she focused doggedly on her studies, didn’t make many friends, and shunned any male student who showed any interest in her. She would often hear her female classmates talking about having a family as well as a singing career, uncertain how they would juggle both. Amanda remained silent during these discussions, not without some envy, and she came to accept that singing would have to substitute for the children she had always wanted.
In her last year at the school of music, she got a call one afternoon from the same hospital Uncle Mat had taken her to the day of the miscarriage. The nurse on the phone said that Uncle Mat had asked her to call: he had suffered a heart attack and was in the intensive care unit. Amanda took the train to New Jersey that same afternoon. When she got to the ICU, his bed was empty. The head nurse took her aside: he had gone into a deadly arrhythmia an hour ago. The code had been unsuccessful, and he had not made it. The Mahler songs she had first heard at his house became a dirge of remembrance.
It was a mild October day, but Amanda wrapped a wool scarf around her neck to protect her vocal cords. In an hour she would have her last voice lesson before the master class, which would be pivotal for her future. If she sang well for Claudine Flaubert, the opera star who would be teaching the master class, she might get an agent’s attention. She had prepared three songs by Mahler.
She walked the six blocks to the school, going first to the cafeteria for some iced tea. She would let it come to room temperature before drinking it. There were rules before singing: nothing too hot or too cold, which might tighten the vocal cords; nothing with milk, which would thicken throat fluids; and no heavy meals that would limit breath.
Amanda entered Madame Borisova’s studio, just big enough for a piano and two chairs. She unwrapped the scarf from her neck and gave her teacher the sheet music. Before sitting at the piano, Madame Borisova touched Amanda’s glass bottle of iced tea to check the temperature, nodded once in approval, and sat at the piano.
“It is good you have chosen these three Mahler songs for the master class,” she said in her thick Russian accent. “They each require different expression of emotion, and this will show your range.” She shuffled through the pages of music. “But today you have to refine,” she continued. “You have not succeeded in expressing the fury that your second song, In This Weather, requires. Your tone is too passive.”
“But Madame Borisova, you tell me this now, after all these weeks of work?”
“We have been working on the notes and the phrasing,” she said, shaking her head, ignoring Amanda’s complaining tone. “Now you have to refine the delivery.”
“How can I redo this song now, with just three days to go?”
“By working very, very hard,” Madame said, looking at Amanda.
Amanda went limp in her chair. Her body, ample from lack of exercise, began to perspire, and her short, black hair became a glistening cap. She could feel her throat becoming constricted and parched.
“You’re good with At Midnight, and I Am Lost to the World you do exceptionally well,” Madame Borisova said. Amanda was relieved. It had been Uncle Mat’s favorite Mahler song.
“Let’s just work with In This Weather, then,” Amanda croaked, her voice barely audible. In a panic, fearing she would not be able to do the lesson, she drank from her tea too fast, sending it into her larynx. She coughed violently, tears squirting out of her eyes. Madame Borisova jumped up off her piano bench.
“What are you doing?” she yelled. “You want to ruin everything? All these weeks of work?”
Madame Borisova went to the bookshelf, got a plastic bottle of honey in the shape of a bear, and went to Amanda. “Open your mouth,” she commanded, tilting the bottle and pouring a dribble of honey into her mouth.
After a few minutes Amanda, now more composed, stood by the piano, and they began with scales to warm up. They ran once through I Am Lost to the World and At Midnight. “Perfect,” Madame Borisova declared.
Then came In This Weather, suddenly, as of today, her problem song. Madame Borisova asked Amanda to read aloud a translation of the words, a poem by Ruckert. “Perform it for me, don’t just read it,” she instructed.
Amanda took the pages of the music and read, “In this weather, in this storm” with the voice of a frightened narrator.
“Stop. Stop!” Madame Borisova interrupted after a few lines. “Not like a weak woman who’s afraid, but like someone who has a storm inside! You should be angry here!”
“I don’t get that from the text,” Amanda said meekly, remembering the lines about children being subjected to danger. Madame Borisova snatched the poem from Amanda’s hands, and as she read about the children going out into a horrible storm, the terror in her voice made Amanda realize, for the first time, that the song was about the death of the narrator’s children in a war, the storm in the song.
“You are young,” Madame said softly now. “But to sing you must use your imagination. Are you planning to have children?”
“I’d like to, some day, but I …” Unable to finish the sentence, she sat down, defeated. The master class would be a fiasco.
“Then that’s all for today,” Madame said, closing the piano lid on the keys. “Why did you have to choose this painful song? Go home and think about what your children will look like, about feeding them, kissing them.” Madame’s eyes reddened now, and her voice faltered. “Then think about a useless war that takes them from you and kills them. That’s what the song is about.”
The day before the master class Amanda was scheduled to rehearse with Bosco, a piano student she had finally agreed to date, and who would be accompanying her and the other students during the master class.
“I have to redo In This Weather. Can you believe Borisova didn’t tell me I had the meaning all wrong until yesterday?”
“She does that on purpose. It’s to give you an edge,” he said. “We’ll fix it. Don’t worry.” His quiet manner was always reassuring and helpful. For over a year they had met weekly to go over songs she’d be studying, and he had become the only person on campus whom she saw socially.
Two months ago, as he had several times before, he had asked her to go out with him — just a movie and a snack. She had been afraid of crossing that line, thinking it a waste of time, and associating dating with the mistake of having sex irresponsibly. But she was lonely and had grown to like Bosco, finding comfort in his mellow manner when they worked on her singing. His cobalt blue eyes and fine, long nose would often distract her as his fingers worked the keyboard. She had asked him what he saw in an overweight loner.
“I want to get to know this pretty, superb singer,” he said. “Who, by the way, is not so overweight as she is nicely rounded.”
She was blindsided by the compliment and agreed to go out with him.
She enjoyed herself that evening, felt relaxed, and they dated again two days later, and again the following week. At the end of their third evening together she invited him into her apartment. Tentatively, he kissed her. She allowed herself to feel the need for closeness, and the physical intimacy that followed gave her a pleasure that was new.
Eventually, two weeks later, as they talked softly in bed about their lives, she felt comfortable enough to tell him about the pregnancy with the miscarriage and its complication. She left out the sorrow she had felt that day. “No children for me, just music,” she said, not wanting to elaborate, “and it will have to be enough.” He said nothing, but took her hands in his, as in a ceremony, and his large, beautiful hands around hers aroused her.
Thursday morning, the day of the master class, was warm for early fall. She decided, nevertheless, as she prepared the clothes for the big event, that she would wear a protective wrap around her neck and shoulders in the air-conditioned hall. But first, she had an appointment with her doctor. She had not felt well the past week, a vague dizziness and fatigue distracting her from rehearsing with Bosco. She had called her doctor’s office a few days ago, and the only available appointment had been for the morning of the master class.
After giving a urine sample to the nurse, she was examined by the physician, a courteous, middle-aged man who moved quickly and efficiently and whom she liked. Once he was done with the exam and had left the room, she took off her paper gown, got dressed, and waited for him to return to the examining room.
“You suffered an injury to your uterus, you told me, during a miscarriage some years back,” he said when he returned. “Did they tell you anything more specific, beyond not being able to get pregnant?”
She tried to remember. “I had to have surgery on my cervix because of the position of the placenta. They told me some damage had occurred,” she explained as he took notes.
He looked up from his laptop and fixed his gray eyes on her with something like relief. “You’re pregnant,” he said.
The recital hall was full of voice aficionados, faculty, and students. As she walked onto the stage to take her place with the other two students, she noticed Madame Borisova in the third row, sitting next to the other faculty. She scanned the rest of the audience and noted several business types in suits: probably agents, she thought, looking for a good product. When Madame Flaubert was announced by the dean of vocal studies, the audience applauded as the diva entered the stage in an expensive but outdated dress and copper hair piled high. She held up her hand and said, “I’m not singing today,” which made the audience laugh. Amanda found herself resenting the response to a banal comment just because it had come from an opera star. She was still rattled by this morning’s unexpected news.
The first student to sing was a thin, blonde lyric soprano, performing songs by Schubert, accompanied by Bosco at the piano. Her light voice was perfect for the playful songs, but Madame Flaubert made faces and criticized after each time: too much vibrato in this phrase, it’s not a coloratura aria; don’t breathe in this line, it has to be legato. Her comments were delivered harshly; the student, although visibly shaken, managed to smile each time. After her last song, and by now shiny with perspiration, the student thanked her and took her seat to polite applause.
Amanda was next. As she walked towards the piano, she looked at Bosco and tried to smile. She had avoided him before going on stage, not wanting to tell him yet about the pregnancy, unsure of her own feelings, and of her future now.
She began with At Midnight. The slow tempo and the low range it required were easy for her. She held her hands clasped under her breasts, her eyes searching the ceiling for the stars in the song. Madame Flaubert praised her voice (“It’s a nice sound, well utilized”) with restraint, and gave her tips on German pronunciation. The audience applauded, and Amanda introduced In This Weather next, readying herself for her problem song about the dying children, which she had reworked extensively with Bosco.
She attacked it violently, staccato, glaring at the audience, the words like shots. She visualized children dying in a war, as Madame Borisova had evoked, and held her arms out as if carrying a child, head thrown back, the cry from Picasso’s Guernica. When she finished, the audience remained silent a few seconds before applauding, and in the third row, Madame Borisova was wiping memories from her eyes with a handkerchief. The diva, Madame Flaubert, said, “You are too young for that display. This is the wrong choice for you.” Amanda heard members of the audience rumbling in disagreement, and saw Bosco shaking his head.
She saw then, on the diva’s face, unmistakable jealousy. The certainty of her talent and Uncle Mat’s vision had never been clearer. When she looked at Bosco, she saw him in a new, diminished way. He was beaming at her and nodding praise, but she felt untouched, and looked away, surprised and embarrassed by her indifference. The remoteness readied her for I Am Lost to the World, a song venerating art as a refuge from the vagaries of life. It was a poetization of Uncle Mat’s obsession with vocal music, and that religious-like fervor, she suspected, was the reason it was her favorite. She took a careful sip of water from the glass on the piano and signaled to Bosco that she was ready with a nod of her head, not looking at him.
The melody materialized from the notes, floating up like ghosts from the piano, magical, as if she was hearing the song for the first time. She went back to that rescue, all those years ago, when she had kissed Uncle Mat’s bisque cheek in gratitude. Music had surreptitiously eclipsed everything else in her life.
Take a deep breath, and close your eyes, Mandy. Nothing is as important as this. Not Bosco, not the pregnancy. There’s only you, the song, and the audience.
Jose Sotolongo was born in Cuba. The written word, both in Spanish and English, has been of paramount importance to him all his life, a refuge from personal turmoil. His fiction has appeared in Turk’s Head Review, The Rusty Nail, Ray’s Road Review, and The Write Room. He lives with his husband on an old goat farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he is completing a novel.