The lights of the stage are merciless. They capture and consume you as you are and project that image back into your eyelids. Every drop of sweat must glisten and glimmer like a jewel on the head of a king. Sweat is more than sweat - it is an admission of nerves or of strength. It is an admission that you are playing as hard as you can and that is a vulnerability. Sweat is never just a natural reaction your body has. Sweat can never be a mere combination of water and salt meant to cool you down under the burning heat of those lights.
Sweat is never just sweat and lights are never just lights. That is the first lesson you learn when you step onto the stage.
The second is to not let them see. You keep your face frozen. Do not smile but do not scowl either. You are not meant for either of those things. You are meant to walk onto the stage and you are meant to be perfect. Why was it when porcelain dolls were made they never had smiles carved onto their faces? Why in all the great works of art do the women stay lock lipped? It is for this reason the pianist never smiles as she steps onto the stage.
The black beast awaits you. Its slick sides are a summoning. You can see yourself in it, snared between the lights and a distorted reflection. You can see the sweat sometimes, when you look hard enough. The black beast sees none of this. It feels nothing. It is a predator, stalking you through the shadows. It sits there, starving. It sits there waiting for you to make a mistake. It sits there and it stalks you.
You sit before it. You are on two ends of the same dining table. The distance is so far and yet so short all at once. You can look down the table but no matter how hard you try you cannot speak to the black beast on the other end. You grip the cross around your neck - so heavy with the weight of the world. It is your noose, your reminder of the woman who watches you from the darkness beyond the lights.
Your fingers are on the teeth of the black beast now. Your fingers you remember the first time you saw was in your mother’s hand. She nodded her approval and said, “These are piano fingers.” They’re long and slender. They move quickly so they aren’t snared by the fangs of the beast. The move quickly because they know they must. You forgot what it was to be a child. You only knew lights and beasts and predators - never a mother.
You are sixteen years old and when the crowd stands in applause, you know she doesn’t.
When you were thirteen, your mother recorded a video of you playing the piano and posted it to YouTube. It got fifteen million views. In the comments, people proclaimed a prodigy. In the comments, people proclaimed a fraud. They loved and hated you as you loved and hated yourself. You watched with blank eyes as more people voiced opinions on things that none had asked them about.
Two weeks earlier a letter came in the mail. A “we’re sorry to inform you” kind of letter. You stared at that too. You were pretty sure you stared at it for hours as Mother screamed through the walls. She was on the phone with the school you had applied to. Two weeks later she would post the recording of your admission to YouTube. Two weeks later a hundred music schools across the nation would request your attendance.
But never the one you wanted to go to. It was silent, unimpressed by the girl in the video with fifteen million views. When you watch the video for the first time, you understand the letter. You understand everything.
The girl in the video has dead eyes. No one wants a musician with dead eyes.
At ten, you locked the door and you’d play the piano. You’d play and play and play just so you wouldn’t have to hear the voices on the other side. They were loud and they were angry. They screamed over and over and over again. You hated the way those voices sounded against the hum of the piano.
You thought you loved playing back then. You thought you liked how the keys felt beneath the pads of your fingers. What you really liked was the control it gave you. The piano was so easy to control, especially for you. You pressed a key and it made a sound. You pressed another and then it was music. You liked making music. You wrote your own songs back then, little melodies you’d hum under your breath whenever you got nervous.
The power of creation had an alluring charm. Following premade recipes by men long dead was never any fun for you. You liked pressing two keys together and seeing what noise it would make next. You did whatever you wanted and you had complete control over it. You didn’t have to worry about the lights or the implications of sweat. You smiled and laughed and when you messed up, you shrugged it off. The beast and you were friends once. Or at least, you think you were friends.
Back before things got bad.
When you were seven, you and your dad sat side by side, playing on the piano. He didn’t have piano fingers. He had machine fingers. They were callused and rough and big too. They knew nothing of little caresses on keys, but when the pair of your played together the world stopped spinning. Outside the birds stopped singing. For once, everything was quiet. Everything was still.
After your dad died you never could remember what his face looked like. Just his hands. His hands beside yours. And then the memory ended.
Your hands were small. A toddler’s hands. You had to have been young if you were playing this song.
What were the words… what were the words…
Oh. That was right.
Twinkle twinkle little star.
Four words which had been subdivided into seven keys. You remember playing it over and over again. Your mother was behind you. You never can remember seeing what her face looks like in the memory. You can’t remember if she was scowling or smiling. You had a feeling it was neither. She was the one who’d taught you the art of making yourself porcelain.
All you remember of that time is the ruler. How cruel the ruler was. It came down upon your fingers whenever you made one mistake. So you learned quickly. Words were forgotten but keys never were.
So the song went E E B B C# C# B. It was a nameless melody. Just as nameless as the cacophony of when the ruler came down, crushing keys and joints all at once. Daddy was at work today. He wouldn’t be coming back home until late. You were scared. You wanted Daddy. You wanted Daddy to come home and save you from Mommy.
But the only one to answer your wails was the ruler.
Mommy stretched out your fingers. “Look,” she said. “Look.”
“I’m looking,” Daddy said.
“She has piano fingers,” Mommy said, sounding ever so delighted. “We can teach her piano.”
“We can.” They kissed then.
That was your last memory of them being happy together.
The show ended and the curtains fell. The applause disappears and you walk away from the black beast and then the stage. Someone presents you with roses. You accept. Someone tells you to smile. You do. Your photograph is taken a hundred times in bursts of light. You want to run away. You want to cry. You want your daddy but he’d been buried for years now and mommy is surely watching you.
“Miss! Miss!” a reporter calls. “Why did you first start playing the piano?”
“Why?” you echo. “I have piano fingers.”
They all scribble that down as if it’s something profound. But no. It is a simple fact. Your life is a composition with no name. Just piano fingers playing E E B B C# C# B.