Dante, I can’t remember what music sounds like.
My fingers reach yours before you can sign anything else, and I shake my head. Of course you haven’t forgotten. Time has more compassion than this. Behind you, the dinner party claps on Harper as his fingers dance across the keys and its as if we haven’t really left, only been misplaced somehow. Slip us back into the fold, darling. You haven’t forgotten anything.
Don’t be ridiculous, I sign. Music is simple. There’s the guitar, the bass, the piano—I point towards Harper—and the drums… I knock a rhythmic fist on the wall next to her head.
From the living room: “Was that someone at the door?”
“Nonsense, Aria. You’re hearing things.”
I start slightly at the voices but you only begin signing again, frantically. I can remember sounds, like…wheels, and…voices. But music is just…gone.
That last word yanks at your courage like it’s nothing. Yanks a part of you out through the back and reassembles you a metre or so from us. You are here, closer than arm’s length, and you are over there, a hand against the wall for balance, a pair of glassed eyes. Singing.
This other you gently lullabies us to sleep and then boisterously heralds in the next afternoon. It listens to us, flinches as I throw that box from the attic down on the floorboards. We spend hours sprawled out, going through the old vinyl records. You love them because they belonged to your Dad, and because at family gatherings he’d dust off the gramophone, lift you onto his feet and twirl you around in a world only you were ever invited into. Years later, when the radio played certain songs, you would tell me how much you missed him and your eyes would gleam with something which seemed, at the time, to be stronger than everything else.
There are songs and moments of the past all spread out around you. Everything you need to remember how to dance on your father’s toes. I know it. If the feeling of music is as powerful as the sound, then one sense will surely remind the other.
It’s not working, you eventually sign. I ignore you and reach for that green My Bonnie vinyl, the one you’re named after. It sits in my lap so my fingers can form the words. You can’t forget this one. Remember, when the drums kicked in you’d drag me into the middle of the room and make me dance…
You grab my hands and shove them back at me, shaking your head.
Remember how you always said…
D A N T E. You make each letter almost forcefully, your eyes shining with the wrong realisation. You think it’s over. If that’s true, darling, then nothing is.
Two days later I take the both of you to that music shop in the city and your favourite six-string acoustic is still there. You can play a grand total of one song and you’d always play it on that thing. You said it sounded metallic, like rain on a roof. You said a person could hear the song once and remember it for the rest of their lives.
The manager, Banjo, recognises us immediately.
“Thought you’d up and left us for somewhere glossier!” His gaze falls on the guitar in your lap. “Come on, then, play that blues thing I never stopped hearing.”
Let me, and I will. Give me one frenetic glance and I’ll explain that his words are lost on you, and we’ll walk straight out of here. But there must be a certain look about him that you recognise, because suddenly you smile weakly and your fingers fly to those same old chords. And yet your movements are mechanical. There’s no longer anything in it for you, or at least not this you. The other one’s singing along.
Banjo applauds, we flee the shop and you shatter the moment we’re out of sight. The strangers pretend not to look as they pass but I know they see us, a man comforting his wife, and they might wonder about us later but they’ll never understand. Here you are, more beautiful than them all, and yet made to live in silence; why is it so hard to help you? The music is there! In your head! Your arms are flailing in the dark, and all you need is to hit the right memory, put your fingers on the right keys…
Keys. That’s it.
I lift all the pieces of you into my arms, and head for the car.
Harper leaves his apartment unlocked and we stride straight in. He looks up in surprise from the piano.
“Hey guys, I didn’t know you’d be…”
“You’re a journalist, Harper.” My voice is louder than it should be. “You know words, yes?”
“I suppose so. What are you…”
“And you’re also a musician. So you can describe music to Bonnie; you can help her remember it.”
Slowly, he shakes his head. “It’s not that easy.”
“Yes, it is! A blind person can have a book read to them, so of course you can tell someone who’s deaf…”
“Music and English are two very different languages, Dante. Music can’t be translated. Listening is the only way for us to know what it’s saying.”
“You’re wrong.” Of course he’s wrong. He doesn’t understand us, darling; he’s a stranger like the rest of them. He’s despicable. “Everything can be described…what are words good for if that’s not true? What am I good for, if I can’t help her?”
I am good for nothing. I am good for nothing.
“Dante, listen to me.” Harper pauses, then says slowly: “Tell me what words taste like.”
A phone rings in the apartment next door.
A dog barks down on the street.
“I’m so sorry.”
And suddenly there’s a hand slipping into mine, and Harper grows smaller and smaller, and then he’s gone.
We sit down in the elevator, because you can’t hear and I can’t help and nobody cares about etiquette. We sit and we stare at each other. I can see my unborn son in the ridge of your nose and the protrusion of your ears; I can see your lips on my wrist, your fingers on my pulse. But I’m starting to forget the way your voice woke up. The way you struggled to finish a joke without laughing. The way you bought pizza.
I’m starting to forget what music sounds like.
‘I love you,’ I whisper. My voice trails over and knocks at your ears, waits, shrugs, turns away. But the knock is enough.
By J. M. Miller