(trigger: suicide) In the basement of the Kenmore Conservatory of Music, the practice rooms are dark and gloomy, with radiators that clank like Marley's ghost and leaking steam that clogs your lungs like molasses. The students hate to use them, but that's where all the instruments are.
Room 8 is the worst of all. It has the noisiest radiators and thickest steam, and the fluorescent lights flicker constantly, giving you a headache. But that's not why no one wants to go in there.
They say it's haunted. Year after year, some unfortunate students have to use that room when the rest are full, and come out stunned and wild-eyed, barely able to talk. When they finally find their voices, they say it's dank and foggy, with a strange smell. They say you can hear music coming from it after everyone else had gone home, and sometimes a woman's voice moaning. They'd rather wait for hours to use another room rather then go back to Room 8.
Emily Choy, a senior studying composition and piano performance, scoffed at those stories. She didn't believe in ghosts, and it all sounded like a hoax handed down from previous students. That March afternoon, she slogged through the gray drizzle and black slush and made her way to the side door of the Kenmore Conservatory, shivering in the chilly wind. She wished she’d worn her winter coat, but the weather app on her phone had said 40 degrees. It felt a lot colder than that. Oh well, this was New England. If you didn’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it would change.
She tugged open the drab pink door and stepped into a solid wall of heat and noise. The stairwell echoed with ghostly instruments and voices as she made her way to the practice rooms in the basement. As she passed each one, she could see the shades down. Rats! All of them were occupied.
Except for that damned Room 8. To Emily, the worst part about Room 8 was the piano. And no wonder. It was an English Broadwood grand, a relic from the nineteenth century that only had 85 keys, not 88, for God’s sake. So you weren’t even playing with a full deck – literally. The old beast had wooden pedals and never stayed in tune to A440, concert pitch. String players hated playing along with it because they had to tune down almost a full step. Singers, especially sopranos, complained they had to sing too low. And piano players had to struggle with the sticky keys.
“How did it get here anyway?” Emily asked her friend Marina back at their dorm as they prepared to practice Beethoven’s Piano Trio no. 3 in C-minor. “Seems like it should be hauled away and shot.”
Marina laughed. She pulled back her long purple-green hair and tied it in a rubber hand. “Don’t you wish? I heard it was donated to the school a hundred years by the family of a dead composer.”
Emily made a face. “That’s sad but why did they accept that one?”
“Rich people love to give their old pianos to music schools.” Marina began to rosin her bow. “They think us students will be thrilled to play on fine old instruments. That’s the trouble. They’re old. Gimme an A, will you?”
Emily complied, and Marina began to tune her cello to the piano. “It's probably some dusty relic from Grandma’s basement. Nobody’s played it or maintained it. It might be pretty, with fancy scrollwork and those carved legs, but the innards are toast.”
Emily knew all about piano innards. She’d heard the terms “hammers,” “dampers,” “felts” and “sounding boards” since she could toddle. Her mother had been a concert pianist who retired after getting married. Rosa Choy gave up her career to raise a family and never let them forget it. She’d started Emily with lessons the minute her fingers could press down the keys.
“It’s a good thing I like playing piano,” Emily told her friends. “She practically chained me to it after school every day.” Memories of those long dark afternoons were engraved in her brain. While her friends played soccer or hung out at the A & W Root Beer Stand, Emily sat at her mother's Steinway baby grand and memorized endless scales and sonatas. Fortunately, she did love music, and Beethoven was her favorite composer.
“Yeah, it could’ve been a lot worse,” said Todd Blessing, holding up his violin.
They practiced the Beethoven trio, and then Marina told them about a new movie she'd seen. "It’s called ‘Cut Time.’ A string quartet gets trapped in a castle with a crazy composer. He holds them captive and threatens to murder them if they don't play his music." She grinned."' Phantom of the Opera’ meets ‘The Shining.’" They all chuckled at the double meaning of the title. "Cut Time" in musical terms means playing a piece with two beats to a measure instead of four. "Cut time" needs no explanation.
Emily rolled her eyes. “Sounds great. Now I just have to get my sonata in shape.” She packed the tattered Beethoven book in her tote bag,. She was working on his Sonata no. 23, the "Appassionata," for the school's upcoming recital.
In addition to performing a traditional piece, the students were required to compose a piece for the upcoming Cornwall Competition for New Composers. Emily was stuck. She loved to improvise - creating music on the spot- but writing it down involved tremendous discipline and mastery of music theory. She wasn't like Mozart, who could play billiards and scribble operas at the same time.
Now she entered Room 8 and switched on the light. So far, the rumors were true. The air smelled musty and the radiator clanked like Marley's ghost. The fluorescent lights in the ceiling flickered nonstop, giving her a headache. But she didn't see any fog or smell anything odd. She took off her jacket and opened the keyboard of the ancient piano. It creaked like old bones waking up. When she played a scale, the notes echoed in a jumble of sound instead of clear rising tones.
“Sing, you old beast,” she snapped as she set up her music book on the desk
“I’m trying,” replied a hollow voice.
Emily jumped. “Who said that?”
“Don’t be afraid,” said the voice. It seemed to be coming from the piano. “I won’t hurt you.”
Whoever that was didn't belong in there. Emily slammed the keyboard shut and stood up.
"Don't go!" cried the woman's voice.
“Who are you?” Emily shouted.
“My name is Fan Xiao-wei . Have you not heard of me?”
“I’m not surprised. In my day, nobody believed a Chinese woman could compose Western classical music."
Emily snorted. “Right. You’re a talking piano. Now I’ve heard everything.” She marveled at how calmly she was standing there, talking to some invisible being.
“Please stay,” begged the piano. “If you learn my music, I will sing for you as no one else can.”
"But what happened to you?"
Now the voice turned fierce. “I was the first woman and the first Chinese-American composer to have my work featured in the Cornwall Competition here. The composer who taught at this school was jealous of me. He came in second, and swore he couldn’t handle the humiliation. He blocked my every effort to get published or recognized. He taunted me, saying ‘No one will ever believe a Chinese woman could write such music. I will make sure of it.’ And he was right.'"
"When I couldn't take any more abuse, I came in here and hanged myself from the pipes."
"Oh my God!" Emily jumped up, dropping her music books all over the floor. She scrambled to stuff them back in her bag, hands shaking.
The voice turned desperate. "Please bring back my music."
"No!!" Emily headed for the door and found it locked. She rattled the knob in terror. Whoever it was, ghost or human, knew how to lock massive World War II-era doors.
"Now open my cover," the voice commanded. Emily began to smell something strange, and cold mist filled the air.
With dread in her stomach, Emily heaved open the large lid of the piano, half- expecting to find a body inside. But it looked like a regular piano, except all the strings were stretched out straight. In modern pianos, the bass strings are crossed over the other low ones. A cloud of dust flew out, and she sneezed.
Emily peered in, over and under the piano but saw no one. “All right, come out, whoever you are. This is getting old.”
“This is real. Believe me!
“What, are you like some genie in a lamp? Will you grant me three wishes?”
“I wish I could. Now play me."
In stupefied disbelief, Emily sat down.
"Now," said the piano, "Here is the opening theme. It starts in E-flat, common time."
Emily felt as if a pair of gloves were sliding into her hands. They felt hot and tight. She clenched her fists but the sensation grew. At the same time, she felt dizzy and her head began to ache.
"Now we begin." The opening notes were slow and haunting, starting with very soft high trills that seemed to ring like a church bell long untouched. Emily found herself playing under another's willpower. But then thepiano paused and commanded, "Write it down before you forget."
Emily reached for her manuscript and pencil. The music continued, sighing with longing. Then it picked up tempo, growing louder until it thundered through the small room, roaring in rage and frustration. Emily could barely keep up. Play, write, play, write. High arpeggios plunged down the keyboard into sudden pauses, leaving unspeakable grief hanging in the air. At last the piece began to subside into deep, rich chords of resignation.
Nearly an hour had passed, and Emily's hands had begun to cramp. She put down the pencil. "I have to stop."
The piano begged her, "Please keep going. There's not much more." And in fact its voice was growing faint. Soon the music faded to a long dissonant echo, like a cry from the grave. It ended in an eerie C-minor chord that rang like a descent into hell.
Emily finished writing the last few notes. “This – is- crazy,” she said when she was done. “'Is this all?"
"There's much more, but this will do."
Emily rubbed her tired hands and felt the blood flow through them again. She asked, "What do you call this?"
"The “Ghost Adagio.” But there's one measure you didn't quite get. Go up an
octave in the Coda and slow down that last run.”
Emily tried it and found her fingers moving more fluently than before. The piano seemed to sing in a poignant manner, an easy rippling of sound that ended
in a haunting breath. "This is beautiful," she said, feeling unreal.
"You've given me back my voice. But I have one last favor to ask."
"Now what?" Emily's dream began to fade. The mist faded and she saw the ugly cracked walls around her and the horrible pipes overhead where a woman's body had hung - if that were true.
"Please play this piece for your recital. Tell them my name, Fan Xiao-wei. A few people might remember me."
"I won't promise anything!" Emily scooped up the manuscript and added it to
her tote bag. She found the door unlocked and fled from the room. Heart pounding, she ran past the other rooms, past the cacophony of her fellow students honking, squeaking and bellowing. In the chilly evening air, she took a fresh grip on her tote bag and headed home.
At the recital, she played Beethoven's "Appassionata," to thunderous applause. She stood and bowed, then sat down again. A puzzled murmur ran through the hall.
Emily bent over the keys, her dark hair spilling onto her shoulders. She began to play a new piece full of a torrent of emotion and thunder, subsiding in the deep rich chords, haunting and dark. When she was done, there was stunned silence. Then the audience applauded with even more enthusiasm. Emily took several bows and went off-stage, exhausted.
Her mentor, Professor Lansing, beamed at her. “That was wonderful! Did you compose that?"
Emily hesitated. For the longest fraction of time her honesty and desire for acclaim hung in the balance. She heard that plaintive voice ringing in her head. "Tell them my
name. A few people might remember me." Her heart wanted to reveal the truth but her brain told her coldly, "No one would believe you."
"Yes, it's mine."
"What do you call it?"
"The Ghost Adagio."
The gray-haired professor exclaimed, "An unusual title, but an outstanding work! I think you have a promising career as a composer.”
"The Ghost Adagio" placed first in the Cornwall Competition, and Emily performed the work many times, eventually recording it along with her own work. Gradually she felt grateful for the ghostly gift. She felt sad that Fan Xiao-wei had been ahead of her time and paid for it with her life, but she never dare reveal where she had learned it. And so the woman's name faded into the past.
The piano vanished from Room 8, never to be seen again.