Contest #26 shortlist ⭐️

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He was surrounded by notes, and they were taunting him.

           Dozens of lined pages were strewn haphazardly around him, ensnaring Abraham in a tight circle of accusation. The quarter notes were now eyes, black as death and unforgiving, never shifting their gaze away from him. The eighth notes had twisted into sneers, the sixteenth notes snarls, with the white space between the beams shape-shifting into bared teeth. And the whole notes opened wide, screaming at him, bellowing, “Why aren’t we good enough?”

           Abraham tried to focus his gaze on one of the few spots of carpet not buried under piles of sheet music. He put his hands on his cheeks and was mildly surprised to find that his face was wet. Whether it was damp with sweat or tears he could not say. All he knew was exhaustion. 

           Abraham had been searching for hours, flipping through years of art and study, and yet was nowhere closer to finding the right masterpiece than he had been the night before when he first started looking. At least at the beginning of the night, he had been able to read the music, to scan it diligently, to analyze and come to an informed decision. The ink, which had glistened so clearly against ivory pages the night before, was now warped as the cold sunlight passed through the gnarled branches of an oak tree and cast threatening shadows onto the pages. The glares of the notes became more piercing and their screaming louder, and Abraham could dare no more than a quick, darting glance. 

           The problem lay not with the music, of course, but with the problem at hand. Abraham’s father had been a complicated man, and their relationship had been equally complex. On the one hand, Abraham cherished the memory of his father as a brilliant, loving man, a musician who poured his passion and knowledge into his son from the day his was born. It was Father who had bought him his first violin. It was Father who introduced him to the works of the masters of music, Father who attended every recital, Father who encouraged him to pursue his education. Abraham loved and admired this man. This Father was an allegre tempo, a major key, played in forte for the world to hear. 

           But a shadow loomed, strict and overbearing. There was another Father, one that permeated Abraham’s cheerful memories no matter how hard he tried to resist. It was Father who never allowed him to explore other interests, insisting on another musician in the family. It was Father who refused to let his son stray outside the realm of the classical maestros, Father who feigned deafness at his son’s cries of pain after hours of practice. Worst of all, it was a Father who always criticized, never complimented. He would always point out flaws, and no praise for Abraham’s music ever passed through his lips. This Father was largo, a bitter minor key, soft in tone yet bold and definite. And this Father was the one responsible for making Abraham into the man he was today. 

           To which Father should Abraham play? To choose one would be to ignore the Father that Abraham had needed; to choose the other would be to ignore the Father that Abraham wanted to remember. And to choose them both would be to understand the complexity of Abraham’s relationship with Father, a level of maturity he had not yet achieved, and perhaps never would.

           Abraham couldn’t choose, and so he blamed the music, and the music fiercely chastised him in return. 

           A gentle yet determined rap on the door interrupted Abraham’s meditation. He grunted, distracted, and a woman slowly pushed the door open. Abraham raised his head to meet her gaze and noticed her bloodshot eyes darting around the mess of scores around him. To his relief, she did not ask, although he supposed that she already knew. “Five minutes,” was all she said, and then left, softly closing the door behind her. 

           Abraham sighed and dared another glance around the ring of music surrounding him. The irate pages that had been shouting at him all evening were now quiet, their eyes not glaring but merely watching with mild curiosity. The calm was worse than the furious questioning. He wanted desperately for just one little note to cry out, “I’m the right one! Choose me!” But none did, and he was out of time. He forced himself to his feet and slumped out of the room, his footsteps echoing in the deafening stillness. 

           The endless night now gave turn to a morning in which time was meaningless. The car ride passed by in what felt like the blink of an eye. Had Abraham been paying attention, he would have noticed his mother’s eyes wandering around his seat, searching for a piece of paper that they both knew he didn’t have. But Abraham’s own eyes saw not what was in front of them, but rather runs of lined paper as they streamed through his memory.

           He blinked and they were at the temple, and Abraham’s conscious mind was forced to acknowledge the events unfolding in front of him. He was greeted with a symphony of sympathy, and he murmured his obligatory appreciation in return as he allowed himself to be led into the sanctuary. 

           The softness the mourners had offered Abraham was violently replaced by the stark reality of his father’s death as he found himself drenched in the icy shadow of the coffin. It stood in the center of the pulpit, isolated, alone. When Abraham’s mother eulogized, shards of glass flew from her trembling lips and cut Abraham’s soul to shreds, but the lace cloth covering the casket that towered between mother and son miraculously remained intact. And when Abraham approached the altar, the lights shining off the glazed wood knew his struggles from the night before, and joined in the mocking.

           Abraham’s violin was already on the pulpit. He picked it up with shaking hands, and immediately felt comfort from his old friend. He nestled his chin onto the chinrest and looked out into his audience. Hundreds of expectant eyes stared back, and Abraham shifted his eyes uncomfortably back to the neck of his violin. This was no better; now the steel strings returned his gaze, waiting for him to instruct them as he had for years, yet somehow knowing that for once, he did not know what to do. 

           The rabbi cleared his throat, and Abraham was jarred to action. Instinctively, he placed his index finger on the D string, pressing it down to the neck. He delicately placed his bow on the string, nearly at the frog, and pulled it down. An E flat rang out, clear and decisive, echoing off the stained glass windows. 

           And from that single simple note, a one instrument symphony. Abraham played as he had never played before, his heart guiding him through memories and music. The strings left indents in his fingers as he bore down on them with passion. The bow danced along the steel, bobbing up and down, never resting. Memories of Father were arpeggios, triplets, accidentals, all slurred together into one haunting melody. Grief poured from Abraham’s entire being through his hands to his instrument, which resonated with words that Abraham would have never otherwise been able to speak. The song started grievously slow but grew desperately faster with each measure as memory turned to longing—longing for more time, more love, more music. As the dam of Abraham’s tears broke, the song climaxed, and a final fortissimo E flat pierced the air…

           And echoed in complete silence. Abraham’s opus was met with stunning nothingness, not even a choked back sob or sniff. Abraham was flooded with shame as he desperately looked around for a kind word and received nothing but blank stares and empty faces. He had failed. Pouring his soul into improvisation had evidently not been the meaningful eulogy he was hoping to give. He tried to stand, to run away, but his legs were no longer connected to his mind. Instead, he slumped his shoulders and bowed his head, desperately hoping to disappear. 

           But then, one clap. A single clap slicing through the thick stillness. Abraham jumped, and focused his attention to the back of the room from where the sound came. There was a figure standing there, hunched over. It was an old man, and he was not quite there. The silhouette clapped once more, and a third time, and then beat his hands together in a slow yet steady pattern. The applause grew to a deafening roar in Abraham’s ears, yet nobody else in the room seemed to hear; they faced forward towards the pulpit, some pointedly looking away in embarrassment, others continuing to stare expectantly at Abraham, waiting for him to speak, or move, or do something. Nobody turned their attention to the shadowy shape at the back of the sanctuary.

           Abraham realized that he was the only one aware of the spirit in the room. Did the ghost make himself known only to Abraham, or was Abraham hallucinating? He did not know. What he did know is that he should feel frightened, or paranoid, or confused. But all he felt was pride; all he tasted was the sweetness of success and accomplishment. The air around him was lighter, easier to breathe. His heart burst with love and adoration and triumph.

           In the form of applause, in the form of a standing ovation, Abraham’s father was finally giving him the praise he had always dreamed of. 

January 31, 2020 20:55

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