“Face Value,” a story by Rebecca Givens Rolland, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 59th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author
photo via Freerange Stock Photos
by Rebecca Givens Rolland
…..Madeleine Case—age twenty-five and eight months, as she’d quipped, over the hill—said she was sick and would throw up if she played longer. Her red-gold bob, cut on a slight diagonal, did look damp, the chin-length strands wet at the ends. Her eyes, typically gray-green, had turned grayer under the lights, recalling a wild cat wanting in. Her face was the color of a pickle slice, a beautiful one. Her nose had a perfectly precise shape, molded almost, so when she scrunched it, as she did this morning, it made me wince. Such sculptural beauty I couldn’t stand to see changed, even momentarily. But she was complaining of sickness, nausea even, and I had to take note. Nausea was a new one, even for someone who complained of something different every day.
…..I asked if she was certain, and she said yes. Still, I hesitated: should I ask her to play more?
…..We were sitting in her third-floor apartment near the Odeon, in a large front room, whose walls were festooned with pink flowers and fleurs de lis from the time of the kings. She was hunched over the piano, an upright her father had rented for the summer, her hands interlaced over the keys. The décor was so out of fashion, it was practically avant-garde. A picture of a man riding a dolphin was tacked on the far wall. A painting or a photograph? Trying to keep still, I cleared my throat.
…..It was the first of June. Another month, and we’d both be back in Manhattan, apparently upstanding Americans who’d taken a summer abroad. On the surface, it sounded romantic, decadent even, and certainly I’d needed the break. I was supposed to make her sound brilliant before then, so she might, on her return, impress the judges at Julliard.
…..Earlier this summer, I’d posted an ad at the embassy—Eric Unworth, musicologist, NYU-trained—and Madeleine’s father, Luis Brin, had contacted me. We’d met at a brasserie, to tell if (as he put it) our styles were compatible. Had he meant money? I hadn’t asked. Money wasn’t what I needed, not mostly. I needed students to plan for, goals to set, in my rented top-floor apartment on the Rue St. Sulpice. I needed someone to rinse me of myself.
…..“Would water help?” I asked, seeing the full pitcher glimmering beside us.
…..“I doubt it.”
…..“Well,” I said, “I’m here for whatever you need.”
…..She yanked on the collar of her sleeveless dress, so the fabric puckered across her breasts. Her earlobes, hung with steel hoops, looked defeated. A crescent moon pendant kissed her neck.
…..Never had she spoken of nausea. But most mornings, she spoke of a jaw-clenching headache. Sometimes, she claimed, electric shocks skittered down her hands. A woody feeling splayed at the base of her spine, curving into her ribs, as if someone was crushing a table on her. That’s the way she talked. Apparently, she’d talked that way before meeting me, so her father had said. So I assumed the problem wasn’t my teaching. My demands weren’t out of the ordinary. The problem wasn’t the piano either—her father said she loved performing, said she aimed to please.
…..So what then? I’d never taken her sickness at face value—and today, I was especially unsure. Certainly she did look wan, but she’d been playing with more fervor than ever. Three Rachmaninoff preludes she’d powered through with impressive power and speed. Now, I noticed that her knuckles, which she rapped on the piano keys, were stained with blue ink. She’d been writing, I guessed. Her father had told me she journaled every day, a simple act of self-expression. It kept her whole, or healing, he wouldn’t say for what. Was she as sick as she claimed to be?
…..Playing on would be good for her, I said now, hoping to distract her. If she ran into trouble, I’d help, model a few bars, but not the whole piece. For now, I hadn’t told her—hadn’t told anyone—about my own block: how I’d taught music back at NYU, but hadn’t played in a year.
…..“Fine.” She stretched, revealing a hint of underarm fuzz. “But only one more song.”
…..“Say, the Rachmaninoff?” Two weeks ago, I’d chosen the piece—Concerto No. 3 in D Minor—to test her skills, but now I wondered if I was setting her up for failure. “The Allegro movement. Don’t rush the cadenza. There’s a fine line between fast and too fast.”
…..I dragged the Rachmaninoff from my bag, but she brushed me off.
…..“No need.” She’d memorized the piece, as usual. In my college years, her skills would have annoyed me, but here, I was only in awe.
…..For two minutes, three, she kept playing. As sound rose up from under her fingers, she burned it off. I imagined paper scraps buried inside the notes, and the scatter of last summer’s seeds. And yet, she was relying too much on her right hand. To balance her out, I nudged her left hand with mine. Her skin brushed against mine, cool and damp. Had I startled her? My legs trembled, and I sharply chastised myself. At least she didn’t reprimand me, only played on, with half-shut eyes.
…..Thank god. For a while, I shut my eyes too and listened. Her Rachmaninoff didn’t sound like Rachmaninoff, or not only. For her, one song was a fluid notion. Her songs had no borders, no precise starts and ends, nothing like the countries from which they came. A Mozart concerto shifted into minor scales, then into a flourish from Joplin. I cringed but didn’t correct her.
…..We met every weekday at ten. Before today, while she played, I’d gazed outside, at joggers huffing around the Luxembourg Gardens in their perfectly pleated pants. At times, I’d felt the frisson of our meetings, but I’d brushed that off, simply as loneliness, or the fact of two Americans meeting abroad, neither with apparent entanglements. I was six years older, but at times felt a decade older, my flat moods contrasting with her heightened ones.
…..Today I felt older than ever. I’d woken up late and irritable. Five minutes later, my father’s nurse had called from back in Brooklyn to say he wasn’t doing well.
…..“What do you mean,” I’d asked, “not well?” with a catch in my throat.
…..“I mean, he’s having breathing trouble,” she said, but wouldn’t elaborate.
…..In her voice, I could almost hear the you should have known.
…..Now, hearing Madeleine’s pause, I flipped the metronome to a faster beat. Tick, tick: the sound turned insistent. Her playing became faster, urgent even. Then she stopped.
…..“Plenty of great pianists have played through suffering,” I said, hoping to soothe her. “That’s one element of what makes them great.”
…..“But what about the not-so-great ones?”
….. I thought of what her father had said at our first meeting, as he slipped me an extra hundred Euros: she needs to be coaxed.
…..“The ticking will make your playing easier,” I told her. Six inches between her right hand and my left. “Like having a treadmill makes it easier to run.”
…..She nodded, but slowly.
…..“I ran a mile in gym class, three months ago,” she said, fingering the collar of her yellow dress. Her face had paled. She flirted with a scherzo, then stopped, complaining of headaches. She couldn’t focus, she said, with knife-blades hammering on her brain, and her nausea had worsened.
…..“The day my father was diagnosed,” I said, trying to distract her, “I fiddled around on the keys for hours. Shostakovich, Prokofiev. It didn’t exactly give me solace, but something like it.”
…..I couldn’t tell her about the long songless years after that.
…..“My father isn’t sick,” she said.
…..“That’s not my point.” What was my point—play through suffering, through a cancer diagnosis, through anything? Even I didn’t believe that. But, looking wary, she started up again. I nodded, wishing I could start over—apologize, for one—but she bent her head and played.
…..“Do you want to stop now?” I asked, as she paused, actually looking ill.
…..“You said one more song.”
…..“Sure—but there’s no need to force things.”
…..Her voice sounded filtered, as if blocked by an invisible screen. She leaned forward, staring at a bowl of goldfish on the windowsill: a silvery, transparent bowl, with three fish swimming inside, one larger than the others. As she bent, a hint of cleavage revealed itself, then more, and I wondered if it was deliberate. Then she began playing again, in a jumble, without any attention to tone.
…..“Too fast. It says allegro, not tornado,” I said, and she slowed.
…..“It’s a bad habit.” She scowled, still gazing at the goldfish. “And it’s not funny.”
…..The metronome’s tick, all of a sudden, infuriated me. I flicked the machine off, and she sped up, as if liberated. This time, she sounded far more in control, and I felt suddenly relieved.
…..“Stunning,” I said, as she finished the song.
…..“The goldfish,” she said, pointing. “I need to feed them.”
…..In their bowl, those goldfish leapt and scattered, scattered and leapt. She strode to the closet, then emerged with a can of fish food. After dropping a few flecks in, she returned, looking pensive, as if she’d shaken all the music from her head.
…..“I can’t keep playing,” she said, clutching one wrist. “I’m afraid.”
…..“Afraid?” I breathed in, too fast. “You don’t need to be.”
…..“I’m afraid,” she repeated, “of being found.”
…..“What do you mean, found?”
…..She said nothing, only stood still. Then, she walked over and stood beside me, very close, as if about to speak. I’d been at the top of my field, but had made a fatal mistake, which I hadn’t yet forgiven myself for. I couldn’t make another. Lightly, I swiped her forehead: wet, as if she’d been running. She paced to the goldfish and picked up their bowl. To feed them more? To simply watch, and in watching, calm herself? Wanting not to pressure her, I inspected those fish. There were three, one double the size of the others, with a silvery tail. She leaned over the bowl, her look one of consternation. Then—moving in slow motion—she picked it up. Shook it. Water splashed out.
…..“Madeleine—” I stood and started towards her, but before I could reach her, she was moving. She put her hand in the water, dragged out a goldfish, the smallest one, and gripped it in her fist. Its tail flapped against her palm, greedily. Its eye drew down.
…..“What are you doing?”
…..“I don’t know.”
…..Her face showed no flicker of emotion. Soundlessly, she brought the goldfish near her face, then to her mouth. She dangled its wet, vulnerable body, with its impossibly golden eyes, then swallowed it. Swallowed? Yes, I looked again. Swallowed it whole, and easily. But how? Her throat swelled, then seemed to seize up, spasm. Then she gulped, in relish, like a snake devouring prey. The bulge in her throat grew, and she vomited.
…..“Dear god,” I said, and ran towards her. What had she done?
…..“I’m fine,” she said, her hand over her mouth, inspecting the puddle on the floor.
…..“I wouldn’t call that fine.”
…..“Well—I’m not sick, I don’t think. I know it looks bad.”
…..“Weird, I mean.”
…..“That it does. ” I couldn’t stop staring, hoping the situation would reverse itself. My face was flushed. I felt the urge to flee. That bowl’s two fish now looked twinned, unconcerned. Sun shone in from the bay window.
…..“Are you all right?”
…..“Am I going to spit the fish out, you mean?”
…..“Something like that.”
…..She shook her head.
…..“But—I don’t understand—what was the point?”
…..She shrugged. “Maybe I like swallowing fish. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
…..“Oh, so you’ve done it before?”
…..She shook her head, and her expression came clear. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Don’t tell my dad.”
…..“You should be the one to tell him.”
…..“I can’t.” She gave me a horrified look.
…..“Maybe we should stop our lessons,” I said, regretting the words. “Until you’re better.”
…..“That’s not necessary.” A pause, and she seemed thoughtful, calmed. “Stay a while.”
…..“I do have students to see,” I said, a blatant lie, and gazed out at the boulevard half-hidden with shade. Outside the flower shop, carnations stood in shock, with straight-up stems.
…..“Fine. But first, play this,” she said, passing me the Rachmaninoff.
….. “Come on.”
…..“You always ask me to play, and you never do.” A sly smile. “And my father would like it. He’s happy to have a pianist in the house—especially someone other than me.”
…..“But your father’s not here.”
…..“Still.” Unfolding the book to a Prelude. “Start here, okay?”
…..“I’m the teacher.” I felt oddly shaky. “You’re the pianist. And practice makes perfect, right?”
…..“Well, what about Mozart or Beethoven? Anything. I just need a break.”
…..Play? Not now. Not ever. The very idea chilled me. I shook my head, passed the book back. Wordless, she thudded it onto the floor. My legs jittered. Notes were like mountains I couldn’t scale; had been, ever since my concert-pianist father had been diagnosed with cancer a year back. Maybe she knew that, or sensed how far I felt from everything, and had for years—how my relationships had all ended after a few months, with complaints that I seemed too distant—how my patients complained I didn’t get to know them—how even the Luxembourg trees bent away when I passed.
…..“Let’s clean up,” she said, scrunching her nose at the stain.
…..“Good idea.” At least that sounded reasonable.
…..I went to the bathroom and grabbed toilet paper. She hadn’t spat out the goldfish. Was it wriggling in her stomach? After the nurse’s call, I’d skipped breakfast.
…..“You all right?” I asked, back beside her.
…..“No worries,” she said, patting her face: less pale, but winded, or overwhelmed. “But I do think some fresh air would do me good. What about a walk?” She jerked her head to the sun-crossed window. “Around the Gardens.”
…..“I said, I have students.” I needed to be alone.
…..“It’ll clear your head.” She was already striding over to the front door, heels clattering. “My father’s out in Versailles, advising a client. He’ll never know.”
…..“I don’t need my head cleared. And what does it matter to your father anyway?”
…..She left, clattering downstairs, and I followed, shutting the door with a click. It was a struggle to keep up with her. My body moved as if it wasn’t even mine. I tried to convince myself the rhythm of the walk would soothe her, even as it seemed only to be amping her up.
…..We walked uphill on Vaugirard, but found the gardens’ main entrance closed, with a sign warning of terrorist attacks. With a wheeze, she slowed and stood beside me. Her hair was fine and swirling, like endless fog. In the silence, we found an open gate and cut towards the Grand Bassin.
…..“I’m sick of this place.” She swiveled. “It always smells like, I don’t know. Like trees.”
…..“It does.” I sniffed in.
…..“Let’s head to the Catacombs.”
…..“It’s not too far.”
…..“It’s nowhere near here.”
…..“It’s about my sister Gail,” she said, plunking herself on a steel gray chair, pushing away leftover copies of Le Monde. Sweaty already, my legs shaking, I sat too. “You’ve never met her?”
…..“Why would I have?”
…..“She’s three years older than me. Older and wiser, she likes to say—ha. Two years ago, she snuck into the Catacombs, on a dare, and went crazy. Left her fiancé, moved to the basement of an abandoned hotel. Our father kept calling, harassing her, but no luck.”
…..“The Catacombs made her go crazy?”
…..“The experience, I think.” She frowned, making a wrinkle appear between her eyebrows.
…..“So why would you want to go there?”
…..“I want to see what she saw. And figure out what happened to her. What changed. Plus, it’s really an experience. There’s a spot two miles in Gail told me about. A manmade lake they call the Lake of Grace. If you time it right, the shadows look like they’re dancing.”
…..“I’m not such a fan of dark places.” I tried to imagine strolling among hundreds—or thousands?—of skulls, with only a torch to guide us. “And I have work.”
…..“So later then.”
…..“I’m seeing friends.”
…..Another lie. Here, I traveled alone and walked alone. Nobody knew me, other than a few acquaintances, fellow Americans I rarely met.
…..“What about a compromise?” she asked, eyebrows raised.
…..“I don’t see how there could be.”
…..“We’ll go just for a half hour. It’ll be awesome, promise.” She leaned in. The collar of her dress grazed my neck. “And I’d so appreciate it. My father would too.”
…..I thought of her father, of the promise I’d made. I hated to go back on my promises, and he’d said he knew the dean of the NYU music school, said he could put in a good word for me. But she’d swallowed a goldfish, in her own apartment. What would she do in a tomb?
…..“Are you going to tell your father about the goldfish?”
…..“I will if you come.” Casting a pebble into the Bassin, she stood tall, sturdy on her heels.
…..“And then you’ll get back to practicing?”
…..“I promise.” She strode before me, dress flapping. “Have I ever broken a promise?”
…..“How should I know?”
…..“Trust me.” She walked faster, and I followed. I was an ogre beside her, almost six feet tall and over twenty pounds overweight. Still, she brought back my teenage days: the summer spent with my father on Peak’s Island, covering customers’ walls with Lake Placid or gossamer blue.
…..“The Catacombs it is,” I said, regretting my words.
…..As we walked, Madeleine sighed every few minutes, musically, and let her enormous purse bang against her thigh. It made a metallic sound when it hit, and I couldn’t imagine what she was keeping in there. At a four-way intersection, she stopped, wringing her hands as if trying to muster up an idea, or drive out a thought. I grew a little fatigued, then more. Soon I couldn’t hide my annoyance. We traipsed on. I started wondering if she was taking the scenic route. The entrance couldn’t possibly be this far.
…..Once we’d crossed the Pont des Arts, stripped of the padlocks of those in love (too heavy, the government had claimed), I asked her when she thought we’d be getting there.
…..“God, you’re impatient,” she said, and kept on, avoiding my gaze. “But I’ve got something to ask you. If you had to get away from someone. Or something. Where would you go?”
…..“Hmm…not sure. What are my options?”
…..“Zimbabwe, or Japan? Or a fallout shelter?”
…..“None of the above.”
…..“I’m not even joking.”
…..We passed one metro station, then another—Sèvres-Babylone, Saint-Sulpice—and I wondered if she was making fun of me, making me chart circles through Paris.
…..“Do you know where the entrance is?” I pulled my phone out: low battery.
…..“Yeah, the Western pavilion of the city gate, they say.”
…..“What, you don’t like the scenic route?”
…..“I didn’t say that.”
…..As I fell in step behind her, a wind rose in my chest. She sped up. I sped up, brushing her elbow. Her skin felt like warm milk. Then she let her hand linger on mine.
…..“Voila,” Madeleine said, as we reached the end of a broad boulevard, across from a Haussmann-style building. Groups of tourists clustered on the sidewalk, chatting, heads cocked back, as if avoiding even the idea of underground.
…..We joined the line, which like all lines in Paris was more like a hive or a clump, and got our tickets. A guide strode toward us, calling, “Catacombs, this way.” Fiftyish, portly, with streaks of gray under a miner’s helmet, he looked as if he’d been traipsing this route for years.
…..“We’re such tourists,” Madeleine said. “Hey, are you okay?”
…..“Why?” I felt overheated but assumed it was all the walking.
…..“You don’t look well.”
…..“I’m fine,” I said, and let the guide come closer.
…..“How much for a quick tour?” I asked him.
…..We negotiated a fee, which sounded steep, but I didn’t care.
…..“Allons-y,” the guide said, tapping his headlamp, so the light flickered on.
…..“Before entering,” he said, “forget everything your teachers ever taught you. Forget heaven and hell, forget le purgatoire. Concentrate on what you see before you.”
…..“I don’t see anything,” Madeleine said, staring at the staircase. “It’s practically pitch black.”
…..“That’s what you think.” The guide swung his headlamp.
…..In single file, we started down.
…..“So, does anybody live here?” a woman beside me asked, wearing a yellow helmet and heavy galoshes. The last question I’d have thought to ask.
…..“Officially, no,” the guide said, craning towards us, so his headlamp flared, “but you know Parisians. They’re allergic to rules. And laws—well, forget laws—”
…..“What about the Cataphiles?” Her voice was horribly cheery. “The illegal explorers?”
…..“A legend,” the guide said, slowing to a halt. “Some say they’re half monster, half man. That green light spits from them when they’re pissed. Some call them bums—but bums who love modern jazz. Ask them—if you can find them. Like most legends, they’ve gone underground.”
…..Madeleine sidled up to me, then nestled under my arm, quiet as a dropped leaf. I nudged her back. Against the guide’s headlamp, the walls looked blank, our shadows artificial.
…..“Why do you think the Catacombs got built?” said the guide. He zigzagged his headlamp. “Overcrowding. Dead bodies are heavy, okay? Bones broke into people’s cellars. Some grandmothers, hunting plum preserves, found skulls. Imagine the fright.”
…..“That would piss me off.” The woman cackled, the echo rising into the air.
…..A guy toting a huge camera sidled up to me, then tapped me on the shoulder.
…..“Hey, lovebirds,” he said. “We’ve paid good money—”
…..“We’re not lovebirds.” I shifted to the side.
…..“I like it in here,” Madeleine said, nicking my neck with her finger. Her skin was hot to the touch. “It’s darker than I would have thought.”
…..“Now for the good part,” the guide said, gesturing us on. “Hip bones and knee bones. Separated from their owners.”
…..Madeleine turned to me, wide-eyed, like a deer in a trap, then leaned against my neck. Her sweat blossomed in my nostrils. Something about her urgency scissored through me, the way those waves off the Maine coast used to, when my mother was still living, when we stood on the shore and watched the tail-slapping seals. She died when I was twelve. The fact of her death still surprised me. Back then, I’d assumed we had years together, that all our mistakes were still to be made.
…..“You’ve got your camera?” she asked.
…..When I looked back up, her face was gentle, careful, close to mine. A coil of energy passed between us, like the circuits I’d once fussed over in school. She leaned forward, tracing my lips with her tongue. I closed my eyes. She met her tongue with mine. I breathed in her gasp. She plunged her tongue deep into my mouth. Terrifying, the prickle of her tastebuds—sharper and more noticeable than any other woman’s—but luscious too. The taste of open air and raspberries—maybe her lipstick—luckily, no hint of vomit. I couldn’t think. She took my hand and cupped it over her breast. Her flesh surged under my hand, rose up, yielded. Her necklace was a small stone in my fist. She burrowed against my chest, so the pendant pinged. My body flushed. I was freezing when she drew away. The sensation was of snow falling in big flakes on every part of my body, everywhere.
photo by Andy Riley
Rebecca Givens Rolland writes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. She is the author of three poetry collections, with a fourth forthcoming from Unsolicited Press, and has published fiction in Slice, The Literary Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review.
Listen to the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy play Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 – Allegro ma non tanto”
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