Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Traveller in the Dark

My recent novel, Apart from Love, is imbued with emotions aroused by listening to music. Some of the characters are associated with particular musical motifs: Natasha is associated with Beethoven’s Fifth, which she has preformed onstage, and which punctuates her decline. Ben is associated with The Entertainer. 

Here I would like to talk about a simple lullaby. It plays in the background at several crucial moments in the story. The poignant words of this lullaby tug at the heartstrings, because they bring to mind a baby falling asleepand at the same time, an adult stumbling across on the path to destruction.  
  
Ben notices the sound of the lullaby during his first visit to Sunrise Home, where his mother now lives. One of the old women living there, hunching her shoulders over her empty hands, which are nestled in her lap, lifts her head for a moment to gape at him, and her mouth is black and utterly toothless. It is then that he hears the trembling of her thin, strained voice. 
It takes me a bit to take in the speech sounds, which are changed, because of the lack of teeth, and disjointed, because of an occasional catch, deep down in her throat. I am listening carefully—until at last I figure out that this, incredibly, is an old lullaby. 
Twinkle... Twinkle... Little star... Her black mouth breathes slowly into the air, into the gathering of these bent, misshapen shadows, in whom life seems to be no more than a dim residue. How... I wonder... What you are...
Later in the story, the lullaby resurfaces in Anita’s voice:  
Then we went into the store, aunt Hadassa and me, and I think she could tell—in spite of me trying to smile—how tense I was. So she bought a little something for me—well, for the baby, really: a mobile, with plush toy animals dancing around it. For now, I mean, until I get a cradle for my baby, it’s hung up in the bedroom window, right in the center, where the blinds meet. 
So at night, when I feel sad, or tired, or just sleepy, I pull out the little string to wind the thing up, which makes the animals go fly—fly like a dream—so slowly around your head. 
And at the same time, it brings out a sweet lullaby, chiming, Twinkle, twinkle, little star... How I wonder what you are...
I stand here, by the window under the mobile. I touch the glass between one blind and another, and watch them animals, mirrored. They come in like ghosts, one after another, right up to the surface, swing around, and fly back out, into the dark. Then I gaze at them stars up there, so far beyond, and ask myself if they’re real—or am I, again, misreading some reflection. 
Anita uses this lullaby to suggest a gentle note on which Lenny might use to end the book he is struggling to write:
Then, I pull the little string, so the thing starts turning around, and playing its tender notes. “There... Hear this? Now here’s a sound I do like.”
He closes his eyes to listen, so I ain’t exactly sure what he sees in his head. After a while Lenny says, “You know, I like it too. Just a delicate little whisper of a lullaby. Maybe you are right, Anita. Maybe that is what I need. Maybe that is what is called for, I mean, not just to heal both of us—but also, to complete the story. Listen! Here is a note—I could just detect it, just now—a note that could mark the end.”
“But then,” I say, “it could mark a beginning, just as well.”
Towards the end, Ben sings this lullaby to help his father fall asleep:
Then the traveller in the dark... Thanks you for your tiny spark... He could not see... Which way to go... If you did not twinkle so...
I sing these words for him, with a voice that is thin and barely audible, just like hers used to be. And I hope that it brings to his mind the musical mobile I have seen, in the window back home, hung between one blind and another. I hope he can fall asleep now, dreaming of reaching up, of pulling that string, to make the plush animals turn around, and go flying overhead faster and faster till all is a blur, to the sound of that silvery note, which is chiming, chiming, chiming, as if to announce a moment of birth.
This is a cinematic story, one that could easily turn into a movie. The characters are sensual, and highly attentive to music; and so, the sound of it is trembles in the background as the plot unfolds.


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1 comment:

  1. I have been asked about the watercolor image of the musician. I did it looking at a model. He was a musician and posed with his instrument. I drew him listening for the sound of inspiration which swirls all around him in red, and replaced his body parts with musical instruments.

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