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(Ave Maria D839, Op 52 no 6)
Her father had built the Weissenwolff estate for the purpose of it to be the most expansive in all of Steyregg. It began as a testament of love to his sickly first wife, a swanlike young woman whom he had loved since childhood. He installed lime walks to make it easier for her to admire her garden, and filled them with her favourite flowers. It made her eyes shine, like he had hoped, and they lived for a very happy three years together.
After her death, the Count became a cagey man. The kind that paced for hours in isolation, travelling for hours and hours but never arriving at their peace of mind. He still looked upon that garden with a kind of maniac attention, ordering his hired help to make sure no blade of grass was out of place, that no flower should wilt under their care, as if it could suppress his grief. But like grief, the flowerbeds always grew to be a little too unruly, and the grassy hills a little too long-haired for his contentment. The Count would watch all this from his window and think that just maybe he was looking upon the state of his heart. No matter how he tried to tame it and make it beautiful, it always grew out of his grasp. It mocked him openly, like the way that his pretty first wife had gently teased him.
But what he couldn’t see was that the estate was already perfect. A green lawn tumbled for miles and miles, with just enough rumbled elegance in the way the vines crawled up the brick of their manor and in the wildflowers that grew by the edges of the woods. For many years this secret was undiscovered, for the second Countess loved the gilded furniture and Persian carpets of the many rooms in the house. The Count and Countess would take their tea in the sitting room rather than the veranda on bright days, right in the middle of the house where there were no windows to the outside.
Children eventually filled the manor, but they grew with a lack of interest for the outdoors, as if they could sense the rolling green lawns were built upon emotions that were hard to face. But then came the last girl, who as a little toddler crawled, struggled, rolled and tumbled her way outside, as if she craved those feelings.
That was where she grew up; not in her mother’s parlour like her other sisters or the well-stocked library like her brothers. She would sleep amongst the violets and the daisies that grew uninhibited at the woods’ edge, watch the sun climb and descend gracefully, and listen to voices and sounds rise and fall around her. She became so accustomed to seeing the world from one perspective that when she would have to rise and stand on her two feet like the species she was born into, she walked like she had permanent vertigo.
Her father noticed her sometimes, falling and stumbling in that garden of his own creation. It would make him smile to himself; wondering at his own youth, thinking upon that lovely bird-like girl he had married. The last daughter became the most indulged by her father, though he would often call her by a name she had never heard of.
Her mother, however, had no love for such memories. She disliked the fact that her daughter’s face was growing increasingly tanned and freckled, and her personality more wild and unrefined. By her twelfth birthday the second Countess took to locking the wide glass-paneled doors that led to the outside, forcibly keeping that youngest child inside, no matter how many times she threw herself against that door like a small bird against a window.
Noticing his daughter’s despondency and his wife’s increasing aggravation, the Count sent for a distraction for the entire family that summer. That distraction was a visitor from Vienna, a young man with a coat that has been darned a few too many times, his violin, and a mind that the Austrian imperial Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri himself had deemed to be ‘brimming full of promise’. The youngest daughter watched, while lying on her back on one her mother’s finely made embroidered carpets, as one of Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg’s pianos was sent for, and a small sitting room was cleared for this man’s use.
As soon as he arrived, the visitor diligently worked away in his little studio, asking for nothing and only emerging to join the family for dinner. There, he was always generous with his compliments about the vastness of the Count’s estate and grateful for the opportunity to be under his patronage. Within the month the Weissenwolff family deemed the young musician to be very likable and charming, if a bit of a recluse.
But no one developed quite an admiration for Herr Schubert the way that youngest daughter did. From the moment he stepped into her view, Sophie Weissenwolff tottered behind him like a small puppy in love for the first time. She followed him, watched his movements discreetly with the same kind of strange, enraptured expression she used to bear when she wandered outside. She could, perhaps, sense the same intensity of emotion in the enigmatic Herr Schubert. None of this was conscious to Sophie; however, she did often wish she were younger, so she could walk into the studio with a kind of childish ignorance and maybe sit next to him on the piano bench and turn his pages for him.
However, despite all her time spent away from her mother’s confining nature, Sophie understood that where she belonged was outside the studio. That sitting next to the visitor from Vienna, no matter how innocent her intentions, was not to be done. So instead, she sat on the worn blue velvet sofa in the sitting room outside of the studio and read her books whilst he drew stems and rests inside. In the latter half of his visit, Sophie would press the delicate shell of her ear to the paneled wall that separated them, close her eyes, and listen to the beautiful fragments of sound that filtered out to her.
One particularly hot summer afternoon, when the visitor’s composition was nearing completion, Sophie laid on the couch with an open book on her chest. Her eyes were gazing upwards at the nondescript ceiling of her father’s house, imagining herself with a bucketful of Herr Schubert’s sound. With it, she scrawled a love letter to a forbidden and distant part of her life; long, green loops of meadow, an inkblot of red flowers. She closed her eyes as the scene unfolded and flowered rapidly in front of her. But before the edge of her imagination could make it to the woods, the door to the studio opened.
Quickly, Sophie sat up and saw the object of her admiration with his hand still on the doorknob, half out the door. Herr Schubert smiled amiably at the little girl with the rumpled hair. The book fell onto the ground, spine up. Forgive me for interrupting your study, he says in a friendly manner. However, it seems the window in this room is stuck. Would you know how to open it?
Ever eager to be of help, Sophie leapt to her feet obligingly and followed the man into the room. The room was rather small compared to the other, vaster, more opulent chambers of the Weissenwolff estate. The fine piano took up nearly half of the space, but the clean whiteness of the walls and the glass-paned windows opened up the room like the clean, crème pages of an unwritten notebook. Herr Schubert’s violin was sitting on a chair next to the piano, from whose headboard tumbled a quiet, constant rain of sheet music. While Herr Schubert quickly went to pick up the fallen papers, Sophie went to work on the old, rusted latch.
She lacked the refined manners of her mother and sisters to be sure, but Sophie still felt the need to amend the silence as she jiggled with the uncooperative window. Turning, she saw Herr Schubert take his place at the piano again, and asked politely, if not candidly;
Do you ever miss Vienna, Herr Schubert?
The young gentleman did not seem to think the little girl’s question impertinent. Indeed, from his smile, he seemed to be expecting it.
Not in particular.
Really? I thought you’d find Steyregg awfully dull compared to the big city.
On the contrary. I prefer Steyregg a great deal more than Vienna.
Why is that?
Herr Schubert shook his head helplessly, if not with a touch of self-depreciating humour.
I am not well liked there.
How is that possible for anyone to dislike you?
The thought of anyone disliking her Herr Schubert was appalling to the small girl.
It’s simply a mutual misunderstanding, he replied. His hands lingered contemplatively on a run, playing it backwards and forward, fast and slow. He made the appropriate markings to the page before him. I don’t think they know me well enough to truly not like me.
Well then, she thought to herself, you should make them know you, so they’ll know how much they are at fault.
The dappled shadow of leaves cast themselves on the handsome wooden piano, and rustled in the breeze that carried itself through the widening crack in the window, opening by Sophie’s effort. Finally, she threw all her weight against the glass panes. The window creaked open, and the wind rushed in full force, filling the breathless space with the smell of summer lilies and fresh grass. It pulled her to them still, and she swayed on the tips of her feet, as it is were enough to carry her slight body far and away. The music score flew in the breeze, but Herr Schubert only smiled and continued playing.
Sophie watched the musician’s back, bending and moving with the melody, and the open place next to him. She approached the piano, and gently placed her hands next to the headboard so as to get a good look at his face, deeply immersed in the music. Ah, she thought, now I have a face to go with the emotion I so often feel deep in my chest. One that might not be mine, but that I experience anyways in Father’s garden and in Herr Schubert’s music.
That was the only day Sophie spoke to the visitor or entered the studio. Weeks after Herr Schubert’s departure, she stood where the piano was, and looked out the window in solitude.
On the day the composition was finished, the family assembled in their living room. Countess Weissenwolff, herself an accomplished soprano, readied her voice and took her place by Herr Schubert. She watched with pride her tall, handsome sons sitting at their father’s side, and her lovely, refined daughters by the windowsill. Most of all, it gave her much joy to see that wild youngest at the back of the audience; her hair devoid of dead leaves, dress stainless, untameable tongue and nature quiet.
But in truth it pounded and shuddered as greatly as ever, between the clasps of her hands. She kept it to her lap, laced as tightly as a prayer while her elder siblings sat to the side in deadened disinterest. Sophie watched, praying and hoping for something, anything, everything, as Herr Schubert readied his violin and closed her eyes.
His bow dipped, and the first note came out easily, emerging from the wooden instrument hesitantly like Lazarus from his grave. Each soft, longing pitch melted into one another, until there was nothing in the room that was not soaked with the sound. Something – a feeling, a note, a breath, a phrase – tied the room together, connecting them with its intrinsic melody. Leading them to a far plane, close yet beautiful.
Briefly, out of the corner of his eye, the Count saw that pretty first wife on the lime walk he built for her sake, smiling at something he could not see.
Sophie did not even realize that she was crying, or that she gasped for breath at each break in the melody because she was so full of tears. As her family put their hands together she already had them against her face, catching the product of Herr Schubert’s best work.
At sixteen, her mother had decided it was time to send her to the city to stay with her elder sister, who was already married and settled with two children. There she hoped that her youngest child, now tamed and controlled, her skin pale once more, would find a respectable husband to care for her. Her father expressed more reluctance in letting her go, and petted her flaxen head sadly her last night home. As her carriage rumbled away the Count went on a walk around his land, which he had started to do with increasing frequency over the last few years, and did not come back for several hours.
Upon her debut, there was much clamouring among the society’s women as to who would take young Sophie Weissenwolff under her wing. For all of them, though with good intentions at heart, this gesture stemmed from the inherent boredom that prevailed over their days. The prospect of having a small country girl to shape and sculpt proved to be a most exciting venture.
Sophie herself, being too hesitant to bestow her favour to any particular well-meaning woman, found herself within the first week of her arrival shuttled off to party after party, each function on the heels of another. Silk skirts and foreign faces whirled past her like a well-balanced top, but she smiled and held onto each proffered arm in the way her mother had taught her and was careful with her expressions. Sophie would sit neatly next to her chaperone for the evening, like a doll with marble eyes, without even so much as a breath.
Her smiles and cheeks were petted by elderly gentlemen, the train of her skirt followed by enamoured suitors, her name spoken behind fans and lace partitions. But these toy-like motions that she so proficiently learned from the porcelain playthings of her youth did little to amend the truth; she still awoke with the same heady rush she used to get when she was a child, after spending an entire afternoon on her back, watching the slow procession of clouds march past the blue canvas of sky, having to stand on shaky feet and walk as if it came naturally. On one day that allowed for a little time alone, Sophie opened a window in her sister’s house and saw nothing but a widow’s veil in the sky.
In the summer of her season, one lady who had become her particular friend, Lady Melinda Peake, invited her to a small social gathering at her uncle’s estate. Like all other offers, Sophie politely accepted and found herself in a majestic brownstone manor in the outskirts of Vienna. She and Melinda were escorted into the house, where there were tables for card games and a handsome pianoforte centering the room. Sophie touched the shining veneer of the surface, and some far off blurred face asked her if she played.
Yes, she said, but very poorly.
Lord Peake, a cloud of bluster and pride, approached them. He kissed his niece affectionately, and the hand of the Weissenwolff daughter.
I apologize in advance, my dear girls, he informed them, for my choice in entertainment tonight. I had a personal favour that needed to be repaid to a friend, and so this man’s talent and proficiency cannot be vouched for by me.
His attention was quickly diverted, as another group of guests entered the room. Melinda immediately engaged herself with several older women sitting by them. Sophie sat to the side, smiling vapidly. Several people attempted to engage her in conversation, but tonight she felt ill. There was a crushing weight on her chest, and it was difficult for her to breathe.
She stood, thinking to get some fresh air out on the balcony of the sitting room. The night was cool and not yet entirely dark, but rather settling over Lord Peake’s lawn. The sky bled from magenta into deeper and deeper shades of blue, and the stars that appeared at the fringes illuminated Sophie’s blank eyes. Was it a flicker of life, or just a meteor?
Sophie! A voice called to her from inside the room. Sophie, come and meet someone! Melinda waved to her from the growing cloister of well-dressed guests. Reluctantly she departed from the balcony edge, and joined her friend’s side, her small, nondescript smile at the ready. However, her eyes lose their glassiness and fill with recognition when she laid eyes on the man in front of her.
Good evening, Fraulein Weissenwolff, he greeted politely.
Sophie’s eyes widened. Herr Schubert, she said clumsily, and for the first time since her arrival in Vienna, her curtsey slipped.
Are you familiar with Herr Schubert, dear Sophie? Melinda asked incredulously, looking from the gentleman to her companion.
Indeed, Herr Schubert replied in Sophie’s silence, I was under commission by her father for a summer. How is your family, Fraulein? He inquired politely, eyes looking intently upon the young girl.
Very well, thank you.
Bored of the conversation already, Melinda swept away, joining a cluster of girls their age looking over the shoulders of card players. Sophie and Herr Schubert remained, and she asked tentively;
Are you a guest, Herr Schubert?
No. Tonight I am under the employ of the host, Lord Peake.
He smiled his familiar ironic smile, but the man before Sophie was a different Herr Schubert than the one from her youth. Though still young, he looked far more aged than he should have, far paler than the lighting should have allowed, and a great deal more defeated-looking than that memorable summer in Steyregg. His clothes were as tattered as ever, except for the fine coat on his shoulders; presumably a loan from a wealthier friend for the occasion. He was as unknown to Sophie as ever, but his gaze upon her was still knowing and attentive.
How long have you been in Vienna?
About a month. I’ve been staying with my sister.
And how are you enjoying your trip?
It’s been very pleasant; she replied mechanically, marble eyes blinking. Everyone has been very kind to me.
But behind her shoulder, Herr Schubert saw the shadow of a little girl standing behind corners. A breath he once sometimes heard when his bow left his violin, from behind the walls of the Weissenwolff studio. The child with a rumpled dress and eyes full of attempts to understand everything, in so many nuances and layers that he could barely see his own reflection. Like she swallowed him and everything else she saw, and worked over them tirelessly in her heart, asking questions, exploring their depths and cradling them in her arms.
Now he looked and saw every line of tiredness that grew deeper and deeper over the years in her eyes. Every touch of gray at his temples – not from age but from the illness that was slowly taking his life that people had forever been discounting – and beyond that? Nothing; except the wall of non-feeling this girl had cultivated on the side for so many years, reinforced and made strong. Not as protection from the outside, but from herself.
I understand you, Herr Schubert thought. I also am consistently disappointed when I realize there are few people like us; that we are alone. That we still must be alone and isolated even when we are together. It hurts, I know, that we cannot say words that are as ephemeral as ash, that we cannot throw over our shoulder and laugh and kiss with. Not with the pins and needles that we cultivate on our skins, maybe as armor and a shield but never a weapon. Because we do not mean to hurt; yet everything hurts us.
Sophie curtseyed, and moved to leave. She did not ask to be asked to stay. She did not call to be saved. The parameters of her world did not allow for salvation. Sophie understood, and placidly allowed the current to rise up, her palms upwards in altruistic sacrifice. A silent and willing Ophelia.
Ah, wait a moment Fraulein. I have a gift for you.
She turned, and watched as Herr Schubert, from the leather case he had tucked under his arm, extract a sheaf of papers. He handed it to Sophie’s quizzical hands.
It was your father’s commission, he explained. I had thought of giving you a copy, but forgot to do so before I left.
For me, she asked in surprise. Her eyes swivelled to Herr Schubert. Why me?
You wanted it the most, he said.
You needed it the most, he thought.
She flipped through the black-marked pages of Ellens Dritter Gesang slowly. They were worn and old, but Sophie recalled each note. She remembered their birth, with her hands and ear pressed against the wall separating her from them. She remembered their mewling cries, and how under Herr Schubert’s hands were moulded into something beautiful, refined and wild.
In the front of it, in Herr Schubert’s own script, was a name.
I remember, she said, running her hands over the cover. You dedicated it to my mother.
Slowly, the dying man, the long-ago visitor from Vienna, shook his head. No, he said quietly. To Sophie Weissenwolff.
It was always for you.
And once again, Sophie’s eyes overflow with tears. They splashed onto the page, the wetness growing and blossoming over the music. Thank you Herr Schubert, she whispered. Thank you.
It was not with distance or a reflection of stars. They were full of tears, but the shine came from the young girl, feeling the weight of paper in her hands and in her chest. The wall came crumbling down, and water, blessed water, ran to the beautiful and painful outside world.
I love your music, she said with utter sincerity.
Sophie clasped the papers to her chest, as if she could take it and swallow it whole, and from within her rise and heal.
I’ve always loved your music.
Herr Schubert smiled, and inclined his head.
Then it was all worth it, he said quietly. All of it.
Very few people paid attention to the favour Lord Peake hired that night. Fine ladies and gentlemen of Vienna’s society gossiped cattily over their wineglasses, tired debutantes fanned themselves, and much fuss was made over the icing cake (created from Paris’ most renowned patisserie chef of course). But Herr Schubert played with his eyes closed, quietly, underneath all of it, understanding that those who wish to listen will hear.
It was not his piano bench, but Sophie still sat very closely to Herr Schubert, like she had desired to so long ago. And she listened all evening; amidst the static, she heard his voice and repeated the truths to herself. She heard his emotions, and felt it for herself.
There was so much ache and grief, but tenderness and relief as well. They walked, and have always walked, hand in hand, in circles and outside paradigms. The greatest secret few people understood, and still understand.
Sophie closed her eyes, and let the music carry her far and away.