Fiction Contemporary Drama


 She feels it thicken the air around her, pulse with anticipation, fix its gaze exactly where she stands. Tokyo salivates behind the curtain, ravenous and eager, a dog with wild appetite and wilder eyes. Behind her, a ghost tries its best to disappear.

Yulia Sorensi. The star of tonight’s show. A famed pianist, born for nothing else, hailing from further up North to grant Japan the honour of being home to her Asian debut. And…her daughter.

Olena fidgets, not for the first time this evening. Tonight’s show must be perfect. It cannot be anything else. Too many towers she has seen crumble in these storms, too many reputations tarnished to rot. Too many names, unable to rise to the full height of their potential, limited to their home countries or continents. Yulia cannot-will not­- be one amongst them. With her blood, with her gift, she is destined for more.

She refuses to let this girl waste away like herself. She will be better.

She still remembers when she first touched the piano, how eagerly Danylo had settled her on the stool and arranged her fingers on the keys. His daughter, his beautiful, wonderful daughter, who will learn to make the piano’s voice her own, who will continue the Sorensi legacy he had worked so hard to build.

Olena learned two things that day: First, that there was nothing she could do that could make her father love her any less. And second, there was no taste so bitter, so vile as the acid burn of disappointment.

Harder, still, was to rise on your feet afterwards, to continue with your life as if opportunity had not just gone cold in your arms, as if you had not just been deemed unworthy by the only god you’d ever worshipped.

The piano did not love her the way it was supposed to. But it loved Yulia.

The very Yulia in front of her now, who stands listlessly in front of a small, gold-framed painting mounted up on the wall. Olena squints at it; a woman lost at sea, russet hair alive in the wind whipping at her body, arms thrown out the heavens, cherry mouth open in song.

Sirénes, read the inscription below the frame. An impression of the sound of Sorensi.

Her breath catches. She reads the text again. Bores holes into the letters spelling out her name. Yulia’s. Danylo’s.

Sirénes, a tribute to her father’s greatest feat. Sirénes, written as a movement to Debussy’s Nocturnes, music that danced between violins and flutes and vocal harmony. Music that had no place for the peals of a piano, for the fingers that danced over its keys.

 Until Danylo Sorensi.

 He had taken the piece by each individual thread and pulled and wound and beguiled it until it unravelled completely, spooling around the wedges between his fingers, his to remake. He’d played it again and again and again until the piano learned to weep in it, and he had played it all for her.

Olena frowns at the painting. The impression is all wrong. To say that Sirénes was written to encapsulate the sea only is to say that water was made only to be drunk; incomplete, insubstantial, a fractal piece of a greater whole. A creature like Sirénes could not rest at the lap of a god that did not breathe. Debussy had written it for him, and he had fashioned it for her.

He'd taken her once, to hear the Philharmonics play, in a concert hall that was dark and quiet and airily cold. She remembers the top-box still, the warmth of the air, the roasted smell of coffee, the way her father pointed out each of the instruments propped up on stage.

And how, when the music began, she forgot all else. How the music floated out of the orchestra’s instruments, floated languidly in the air around them the way glowing ostracods drift in dark water, singing of the sea and of the sirens that wept in her waters. But it wasn’t the percussion or the strings or the woodwinds that charmed her so. It was the choir, the women in the gowns that frothed around their bodies the way the sea worshipped the shore, standing tall in the centre of the stage, swaying gently as their voices rose higher and higher into a crescendo so powerful it hurt to breathe. Sirens. These were the witches after whom this piece was christened, these vassals of monstrous harmony.

She remembered turning to her father to voice her awe, only to find his attention already on her, a soft, mesmerized smile pulling at the stretch of his lips.

“Make me a melody,” he’d winked. And her heart had stopped when he did.

This was what he’d say to his every muse, his greatest inspirations. A whisper, so soft even the wind would strain to hear it, his way of dedication. Make me a melody. This one’s for you.

Sorensi’s Sirénes was born many months later, and on her father’s piano, played by his fingers, its beauty was magnanimous. Powerful, ethereal, it was every turmoil in the waters of the sea, every alien thought that festered unbidden in the folds of the human mind. L’appel du vide. His love for her.

His death had been devastating, a stab to the heart that bled and bled, that no known force was powerful enough to clot. At the funeral, they’d played a collection of his original compositions, Atlanta, Pearl of Anadyomene, all beautiful, born from his mind and his fingers alone. His magnum opus, the clergyman had said, to which all in attendance nodded tearfully. They were foolish, the whole lot of them, settling for flowers when there were diamonds deeper in the soil. Sirénes. There had been no Danylo Sorensi before it.

Everything was meaningless. The sympathies that puddled where hatred once bled, the masses of mourners at his flower-laden grave, the murmured condolences, the too-long embraces. She couldn’t even bring herself to attend the concert the London Philharmonics held to pay him tribute. For where was the point? In her world, it had only been the two of them-father and daughter-and now that he was gone, it moved no longer.

The family had insisted that she come. She couldn’t betray him so. That was his music they were parroting, she’d yelled at her mother. And the wounds were fresh still.

Memory was crueller, doing as much damage as it did repair. Her father, crooning gently with the nightingale in its gilded cage. Her father, sitting in his favourite armchair by the fire, absent-mindedly tapping his fingers in time to some then-embryonic music, while she sat at his feet, chattering the way all daughters did. Her father at the piano, a fledgling Danylo Sorensi, playing Sirénes for her after supper. His piece-his piece. For her. Whom she had refused when he begged she do the same, who had wished to hear the music of his life before he passed. Her father, who was spared her shameful mediocrity in the hours before his death. Her father, her refusal of whom has haunted her ever since.

For the longest time, she’d believed she’d died with him. That two hearts had been lowered into the earth that inclement morning, not one. Time did not move forward; a single hour, droning on, the unfaltering scream of a piano key subducted under the weight of a lifeless finger.

When her daughter was born, she came into this world quietly. Looking at her, small, frail, and irreligiously red, tucked in her arms, only then did she hear the ticking of the clock mounted on the wall. Only then had she felt alive.

This child had saved her, she decided. She could love her. She would love her.

And she did. Raised her quietly, away from her father’s circle of artists and prodigies and vassals of unfathomable talent. Until that afternoon, when she stumbled back home from an outrageous grocery expedition, when she heard the ghost of Danylo Sorensi playing up in the attic.

 She remembers it all so well…how she dropped the packet of eggs and tripped up the staircase, how she burst through the door, mascara running down her cheeks. How the room smelled of citrus and wood polish and must, how the dust flashed brilliantly under the sun’s mellow gaze before vanishing entirely, so much like her father. How Yulia looked up from the piano, grinning as toothily as the gaps in her gums would allow her, and holding out her arms to her mother. Just like Papa did.

It wasn’t even proper; a five-year-old child fiddling with the keys of a too-large piano, producing sound too cantankerous to be called music. But the smile she was smiling, the laugh she was laughing, none of that was hers. It was Danylo’s.

The piano had breathed beneath her fingertips-it had sung. No longer was its music a product of string vibrations and wooden amplifications, it was a live voice, escaping from a throat of flesh and blood. All beneath the weight of her fingers. Her gaze dropped to Yulia’s fingers, stubby, chubby, and crooked nailed from her terrible habit of biting them. And she pictured them, dancing on the keys of a pearly-toothed piano, singing to her a song of the sea and all her children.

Make me a melody.” That was what he’d begged her, time and again, before he passed. She’d been too ashamed to answer, too disgusted by her own inferiority to fulfil his dying wish. She could do that now. Through Yulia, her life would be salvaged.

It was difficult persuading Fedir to take on her family name, but he surrendered not soon after. Yulia Ivanko had died, the supernova necessary for Yulia Sorensi’s star to be born.

After that, it was simply time for her to make art. The life cycle of a butterfly is, as is everything in theory, a simple process, but to replace the caterpillar with a classical prodigy, and the chrysalis with a virtuoso, such was a transition that required meticulous approach.

Hours bled into days and days bled into months and the months bled into years as she kept Yulia hunched over a piano, be it in a concert hall competing for the nationals, a fancier opera house for those nail-biting international events, or the freshly polished upright piano in their own house, which had been moved from the attic to the guest bedroom for her ease.

Others would call her a monster, call her love brutality. But Yulia was just as much to blame. It was she who had damned herself to this life of virtuosity the minute she was discovered with the piano. And if this was Hell, and she a Dante drowning deeper in its waters, did that make her Virgil? A Virgil with no wisdom to offer, no protection to give. How does Dante survive the waters if his Virgil is the storm?

Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Stravinsky, these were all introduced to her as if they were commands to be entered into a copier for it to replicate. And, like a machine, Yulia would produce them, with the technical precision of a surgical laser, sharp and with a finesse foreign even to the sculptors of Old Greece.

She couldn’t bear to hear her father’s own compositions-it wasn’t yet time-but Sirénes would croon to her in every breathing moment, its phantom sea-spray peppering illusionary kisses on her skin, its sweeping waves tossing calamitously behind the lids of her eyes.

Make me a melody,” the sea would whisper.

So, the scorebooks were retrieved. And Yulia awakened.

And yet, every time Yulia played it, something would be lacking. It was as if two spirits were fighting within the wispy frame of her body, Danylo’s and her own. Fighting over a piece that belonged to one as much as it did the other.

Last night replays in her head, so vividly it feels as if it is unfolding before her live on a screen. Yulia, done with playing Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for the umpteenth time, slumping in her seat. Herself, standing by her, hand on the keys.

“Take a break,” she had said.

Yulia’s eyes had snapped up, cold steel, the glare of a winter sky.

“What will you have?”

The mistake comes next-so obvious it is in hindsight, and still so easy to miss in the moment. Mistakes, regret, and opportunity, the mistresses that governed her life. What did they have in common?


She pictures Yulia still-again, the memory so lifelike she reaches out to stop her. Her fingers graze coarse cloth.

In her memory, Yulia plays. Her fingers falling on the keys with the polyphonic harmony of rain, her movements airy, genteel. Her jaw set, gaze arctic as she dances over the piano.

Olena frowns. It is Sirénes, just as Olena knows it, but at the same time it is something else entirely. The tempo still quick, but now it’s clunky, each key struck with a maddened urgency. The crescendo still powerful but broiling with an unchecked rage. No longer a choir of sirens, of fantasy brought to life, no longer a confession from the angels to their god. No, it is an onslaught of wolves, howling at a blood-red moon, maws snapping at a wind that tears through their bodies like shards of jagged glass.

This was her father’s love for her. What it had been since she let him die, depriving of the very thing that made him him. This bleeding, violent thing-this was no love at all. It was cataclysm. It was hatred. His hatred. For her.


She remembers the world spinning, the piano howling. And, somewhere in the distance, she remembers the faint croak of Danylo pleading to hear her play.

“Play for me. Olena. Please.”

“Make me a melody.”

Her arm had moved on its own. Cut through the air like a rapier, met Yulia’s cheek with a sharp smack! Olena’s eyes widened. She’d stood there, chest rising and falling rapidly, trembling uncontrollably. Yulia remained hunched over, face turned, fingers digging into the wood of the stool the way roots dig into soil. An apology burned in her throat. But words couldn’t save them now.

“Weeks I have spent on you,” she had seethed instead, “years I have toiled with you, and this is what I get. A girl with no musicality. A girl with no gift.”

Lies, of course. All of them. Before Yulia, she had never known a song so beautiful could invoke such terror.

The answer was simple; Mistakes and opportunity, she never saw them till they were gone.

She’d fled the room not long after, sought shelter at some no-name bar with a whiskey she did not care for.

One thing was clear. Yulia did not love the piano. She would love it in her stead. Yulia did not care for their legacy or the weight of her name. She would bear it in her stead. For that, she reasoned, was her way-the only way-to love her the way she should. To honour her father the way she should. To apologize, to repent, to be saved.

They stand now, in front of the painting, the taste of sea foam and salt on their tongues. She wonders what Yulia sees as she stares at it. As her eyes drink in the strokes of acrylic blues and greens and greys, as her fingers trace over roughened waves of hardened paint, what does she hear? Does she hear the call of the sea’s fanged, mourning daughters; do they hum and croon and wail out for her fingers to etch their voices into the notes that reverberated in her blood? Does the mist pluming around the canvas come to her in the visage of a god? Does she see her grandfather at all, the one who put all that weight behind a name that had once been just a name?

“Miss Sorensi.”

The concert manager, a youngish girl with a squeaky, trembling voice, rouses them from their trance.

“You’re up.”

Yulia nods stiffly, then turns to face her mother. And when Olena looks into those eyes, she has the answers to her musings.

Soulless. Like her music. Nothing to live for, nothing to raze with. The fire that had burned in them when she’d defiled Sirénes snuffed out entirely, no cinders, no embers. Only smoke, and that, too, dispersed by a phantom wind.

 I made this, Olena thinks. And now it’s too late for her to be anything else.

Yulia Sorensi is nothing but a machine. Waiting to be switched on. For her mother’s soul to enter the cavity in her ribs. For her love for the piano to seep into her skin.

 A dormant terror, waiting to be brought to life.

July 28, 2023 13:21

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03:44 Aug 03, 2023

Beautifully written. I had a bit of a job sorting out who was who though. "Olena learned two things that day: First, that there was nothing she could do that could make her father love her any less." Olena is the Mum and Yulia the daughter. In the quoted sentence it could be that Olena is the 'she'.(Yulia? Olena?) It reads ambiguously. The quote below, the use of 'cantankerous' which is about a difficult child. Did you mean cacophonous? This is describing discordant sound. It puts a lot of pressure on children, expecting them to excel like a...


Ayesha Ahmed
06:49 Aug 03, 2023

Oof! I did try my best to make the two as easily distinguishable as possible. And yes, that is Olena in the sentence you've quoted. As for cantankerous, I did use the word intentionally. I wanted to capture how very young children don't really play instruments with the carefulness an older one would; with the piano, they're often just slamming fingers onto key after key, producing very loud, very angry and very discordant "music". I mean, I was an absolute beast with my first toy guitar (to the point where I'm surprised the strings never sna...


22:16 Aug 03, 2023

Thank you for your comments as well. Yes, I understand why you used the word. It fits well in the context which is why it was a query only. I can imagine a child doing this to a toy guitar. I guess you never took up playing the guitar. I gather that English is your second language? carefulness - care All the best.


Ayesha Ahmed
06:35 Aug 04, 2023

I did actually end up getting a proper one in high school, and have some lessons lined up. Still very much a beginner. And yeah, English isn't my native language-curious to know what gave that away.


23:07 Aug 04, 2023

Carefulness instead of care. English has words which are irregular or have a variety of endings and forms which don't always follow a set pattern. It is easy to get them wrong. Also (She swears it's an accident) You typed this in present when what you are writing about is in the past. ('was an absolute beast', Passive 'was' is visualized in the past) English has 12 tenses if you are learning it. (Very confusing) Many languages have consistent end changes for the tenses and there are few tenses. Somehow, native speakers of English are natura...


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Emilie Ocean
16:59 Aug 01, 2023

Hi Ayesha! Beautiful story. Your writing style produces vivid descriptions that kept me on the edge of my seat. I.e. "It wasn’t even proper; a five-year-old child fiddling with the keys of a too-large piano, producing sound too cantankerous to be called music." I read this with a smile :) Thank you for taking the time to write Sirénes x


Ayesha Ahmed
08:57 Aug 02, 2023

Thank you so much!


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