Tania Hershman / Four Stories

From 8 – 12 June 2015, the British Council will bring short story writers Paul McVeigh and Tania Hershman to Mexico City, Monterrey and Tijuana to participate in activities including talks, conversations with Mexican writers and visits to key literary spots. 

My mother was an upright piano

My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro. My father was the piano tuner; technically expert, he never made her sing. It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.
How did I know? She told me. During the last weeks, when she was bent, lid slightly open, ivories yellowed.
———-“Every Tuesday,” she said. “Midday. A knock at the door.”
———-The first time, I froze. A grown woman myself, I listened to my mother talk and was back playing with dolls and wasps’ nests. I cut my visit short. My mother didn’t notice. She’d already fallen asleep.
The second time, I asked questions.
———-“Mother.” I said. “He….came round. On Tuesdays. How many?”
———-“We are fallen stars, he said to me” whispered my mother, the formerly-upright piano. “You and me, he said. And then he would take my hand.” She closed her eyes, smiled.
———-My father, the tuner, never took anyone’s hand. He was sharp, efficient. I searched my mother’s face for another hint or instruction.“Should I find myself one?” I wanted to ask. “A fallen star? A maestro? Am I like you?” But she had stopped talking and begun to snore gently. I sat with her, watching the rise and fall of her chest and the way her fingers fluttered in her lap, longing for arpeggios to dance across my stiffening keys.

Like Owls

———-Someone died. That was the whisper down the line. The line, that stretched, that snaked, that wound. Someone died, they hissed, pass it on. And we did, we bent towards our neighbour, our hot breath in their ear. Who, who, who? Like owls, the sounds came back. Who died, who died, who died? But nothing was returned, and no-one could see, no-one could see the front, although every day we shuffled some, we moved one foot and maybe the other. We hoped, we hoped and hoped, we clutched our numbers, shuffling.

———-Inside our heads we wondered if we were it, the dead, the expired. Perhaps we had all passed on but why the shuffling then? If we were dead, we thought, we’d rest. If we were dead we’d lie around all day, in sunshine if it still existed. Lucky dead, we thought, lucky not to have to queue, to eat, or breathe, or sigh or sweat, or love or curse. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

———-The next day and the next, we stood, we inched, we stood. And then: a runner. A runner streaking, from behind straight up, towards the head, the start, the finish! Go go go go, we cried, clutching our numbers, our shuffling feet thrilled to the chase, thrilled to the bravery. Go go go go go! The runner vanished, far far ahead, and we strained to hear, to hear some cheers, some acts, some violence, some thing. But no, the runner’s run was done. Bones broken, came the whisper, hissed from one ear to the next. Truncheons, batons, zappers, chains and stern commands. The runner won’t be running now, or ever, and we giggled, laughed and cackled, foolish runner, stupid stupid stupid, no not brave, not brave. Queue we must and queue we did, no breaking free, no gaining ground.

———-Someone died. That was the whisper down the line. Who who who? Like owls, the sound came back.

The Party

We get to the party. We say hello to our hosts. We take off our coats. The party is crowded. We fight our way through to the kitchen. We load our plates with food. We sit in a corner. There are a lot of people. There are mathematicians and physicists, experimentalists and theoreticians. There is an elderly but still lively Nobel prize-winner. We are not mathematicians, we are not physicists. When someone asks what we do, we swallow our food and we say, biochemists. They are polite, they nod, but they change the subject. They talk about a film they have seen or about the décor of the kitchen. We nod, we talk politely too, even though we have not seen that film.

———-At a certain point, there is music, quite loud, from the other room. We place our plates on the side and move into the hallway. We see people, dancing: mathematicians, physicists, theoreticians and experimentalists, and the elderly but still lively Nobel prize-winner. We look at each other and then we sneak up the stairs.  We find the room where the coats are kept and we sit on the bed. We hold hands.

———-We hear someone coming up the stairs. We wonder about hiding. But it is too late. She comes into the room. Here they are! she calls to someone behind her. Come! she says to us. Come! And she takes our hands, pulls us up from the bed. We look at each other, we do not understand, but she gives us no choice. Here they are! she cries as she leads us back down the stairs. I have them! she says as she pushes us gently into the other room, where the music is loud, where everyone is dancing.

———-Someone turns down the music and everyone is looking at us, swaying and smiling. They open up a space and there we are, in the middle of the room, surrounded by everyone, smiling, swaying. We look at each other. We grip hands. We do not understand.

———-The woman who has brought us down here, who took us from the coat-room and brought us, says, Will you please? Please… give us some? Some of your words! Your biochemistry words! And the others, the mathematicians and the physicists, the experimentalists and the theoreticians, the elderly Nobel prize-winner, they are all nodding, saying, Yes, yes, give us your words! Your words!

———-We are shy. We are holding hands, in the middle, the music still playing, everyone swaying. We look at each other. We wait. Is this real? we think. Do they really want this?

———-And then we do it. We begin. We say: DNA.

———-DNA! They all say. DNA! DNA!

———-Then we say, lymphocyte.

———-Ooh! They say, and they repeat the word. Lymphocyte, they say, turning to one another, still swaying. Lymphocyte!

———-Organelle, we say then, and then: lamellipodia.

———-Lamellipodia! they cry and someone raises up her arms. The woman who brought us here, took us from the coat room, claps her hands. Lamellipodia! she cries. We look at each other. We smile a little. We loosen our handhold. Then we say, Green Fluorescent Protein.

———-Oh my! says the elderly Nobel prize-winner, and he does a twirl and then says Green Fluorescent Protein! The words ripple around the room until everyone is whispering them, chanting them. Green fluorescent protein, green fluorescent protein, and the chant becomes louder and louder. Someone turns the music up and then everyone is dancing.

———-We stand in the middle of the sea of dancing mathematicians and physicists, experimentalists and theoreticians, and the twirling elderly Nobel prize-winner, listening as they murmur Green Fluorescent Protein as they sway and dip. We stand and we smile, we smile and smile. We feel wanted. We feel loved. We feel heard.

Her Dirt

———-She keeps her dirt, and at first her dirt is enough. But then it isn’t. So she takes to taking.

———-There is history here. A clean clean child. Or, rather: demands for a clean clean child. A pure-white home, a childhood washing and re-washing. Do you need to hear of distant mothers and of even further-spinning fathers?

———-She keeps her dirt in jars, in rows, on shelves, in rooms. She lives, of course, alone. Jars are labelled, jars are all the same. She does not touch the dirt, does not let it glister through her fingertips like stardust. The jars are sealed and left. If asked, she could not say why. But no-one does.

———-She breaks into her neighbours’ homes. She takes her own dustpan and brush and, no matter how many visits from their cleaner, finds something, underneath, behind. She labels, stares and sees no difference. Your dust or mine? His dust or hers?

———-Then she hears of Arthur Munby. A Victorian gentleman, he was obsessed, it seems, with dirt. Dirty women in particular. Part of her does not want to hear the rest, her insides long ago scrubbed of any thoughts of this. Of what he might want. With them. But when she looks down at her white white arms, her fingernails untouched, unbitten, the pale cloth of her shirt, she feels life spring up inside her.

———-She goes out for a walk, and at first, she doesn’t know what she’s looking for. She wanders to her nearest train station, and when she is there starts to laugh because she realises she had hoped for coal. But there is no coal, no men kitted out in coal dust, no romantic muscled dark-faced men in this electric age. She will have to go elsewhere.

———-She takes to walking daily in search of this thing, this idea she could not name if asked, though no-one does. It might be man or woman she is searching for. But everyone is freshly-washed. Even the cats are always cleaning, cleaning.

———-On one walk, she finds she’s left the city. She did not notice, she had been humming to herself. The pavement has ended, she is on a path and by the path, hedges are wild, no trimmers here, no neaten-uppers. She is not tired, which is odd, for she has never been that strong. She is not hungry either, although it must have been hours. Her legs keep moving her towards, towards.

———-The first puddle is a clue and she walks straight through it, no matter shoes or socks or trousers. A second puddle and a third, and she skips through them, off the path now. And then a barn, its door slightly open. Its door inviting.

———-What does she see when she walks in?

She sees a grey cube, in the middle of the floor. A large cube made of concrete.

———-She moves nearer and sees that it’s not concrete. It’s dirt.

———-She moves even nearer and sees that it’s not just dirt. It’s her dirt. All the childhood dirt she was forbidden. How she knows this she couldn’t say if asked, though no-one does.

———-As she approaches she sees:

· lint from pockets in a favourite summer dress that she was made to pick out with tiny fingers

· mud from their pond that she’d needs a space wanted to rub on her face and arms

· balls of dust from underneath the sofa, where she once hid and sneezed and gave it all away and was dragged out, dust-smeared, and afterwards was hit

· clippings from toenails that were never seen

· clumps of hair from the dog she was not allowed to have

· flakes of her skin from the mattress she cried into when the dog was taken away again

———-She moves closer still, towards this past-dirt monument. There is no moment when she thinks: How is this here? And: For me? No, there is just her reaching out one arm and then the other, sliding hands into the softness of her-dirt, up to her elbows and then further, to the shoulders, and then she takes that step and walks right in, into the middle of the cube.

———-As she does, her jars, in rows, on shelves, in rooms, burst open all at once. The dirt – her dirt and his, your dirt and mine – spills out, fountains, spurts, streams and gushes over everything. House dust and grime on every surface, every book, every fork and spoon and knife, every cushion, every shoe and every window sill, until there is a thick thick layer. When it is done, the lids of the jars sigh closed, and everything is blanketed. As if no-one lives here. As if no-one has been here for years, for decades, for millennia. As if we were never here at all.