Authors: Sena Jeter Naslund
Sena Jeter Naslund
To the memory of
is standing in the shade of a small, leafy tree. The quality of the filtered light on their bare skin attracts me, and I stand with them to enjoy the dappled shade. Through pinholes formed where leaves cross, the sunlight creates globules of brightness on the grass. My bare toes nudge inside one of those softly defined orbs, but then I remember to look up.
From the sky, at the rate of 32.2 feet per second per second, a grand piano is hurtling down like a huge black bird of prey over our upturned faces. In that moment is a beginning and an end, alpha and omega, Genesis and Revelation.
Because we always ask, like any logical child, “Yes, but what came before the beginning and after the end?” I start with the year 2017, three years before I fell into Adam’s world and lived with him in the shade of an apple tree.
The instant before the piano fell, from a block away, I saw only a curiosity in the Amsterdam sky: a grand piano, aloft. To the beat of my rapidly moving feet, the words of the White Rabbit—“I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date”—played through my mind from
Alice in Wonderland.
My date was with my beloved husband, Thom Bergmann, an astrophysicist of international reputation.
My name was and is Lucy Bergmann, and I was scheduled to join him and his colleagues for lunch. An imaginative, playful group for all their dedication to science, they’d named themselves collectively ELF—Extraterrestrial Life Focus. Using spectroscopy, they analyzed light from distant reaches of the universe to determine if the spectra had been emitted by biomolecules. My husband and his colleagues were searching for the atomic structure of amino acids, essential to life as we know it on Earth.
Not that I had anything to contribute to their scientific inquiry; I merely represented the curiosity of an ordinary, somewhat bright human being. Nonetheless, I knew something that none of them knew. I knew something that my husband had confided to me that morning in our hotel room. Because I had faith in my husband and believed what he told me, I knew a secret to which no person in the history of humankind had been privy. In an effort to contain my extraordinary excitement, I forced myself to watch the ascent of the piano as I hurried past the tall seventeenth-century Dutch houses on Prince Street toward the Blue Tulip Café.
That fine day in Amsterdam, in the spring of 2017, I thought it strange that the body of the delicate, expensive instrument was not dressed in a quilted case tailored to fit its unique shape. Darkly gleaming above the trees, the grand piano’s ebony-colored sides flashed back the fresh late-morning sunlight, but the three pedals hanging under the keyboard had been fitted with socks of green felt. To protect the piano cabinet from the abrasive cables of the sling at points of contact, plump red cushions had been placed between the twisted wire and the polished wood. Someone who lived on the top floor must have been in a great hurry to have a piano delivered.
My husband had been talking about buying just such a handsome grand. Like many people gifted in mathematics, Thom was also a fine musician.
As I walked down Prince Street, I speculated that the piano was being lifted up the outside of the narrow Dutch house because the interior stairs twirled their way up too tightly to accommodate the passage of so massive an instrument. Almost three centuries earlier, the clever Dutch had anticipated the installation problem posed by furniture too grand for their interior stairs yet essential to their egos as testaments of bourgeois magnificence. During the
construction of these multistoried, substantial homes, their builders usually had a hook permanently implanted outside at the apex of the ornate, arched facade of each house. By means of a pulley attached to the hook, large and heavy furnishings could be raised by laborious degrees outside the building to even the highest level.
At the top of this particular Dutch house was a high, large window, subdivided into many small panes, and it had been flung wide from its side hinges, like an open arm, to welcome the huge piano. I tried to see if the glass of the mullioned window was wavy at the bottom of each pane, but my eyesight was not acute enough to detect such an irregularity in glass at that height and distance. I knew glass behaves rather like a slow-flowing liquid; over time, gravity drags its molecules downward. I touched my own just-beginning-to-sag jawline and thought how gravity was beginning to do its work on me, at age thirty-nine.
That Amsterdam day four years ago, I was not only excited but also upset. I had spent the morning of our arrival from the States by visiting the Anne Frank House. The remnants of Anne’s innocence—sepia photographs of movie stars pinned to her bedroom wall—and the horror of what had been done by the Nazis screamed that the world I called home was too terrible a place to abide.
A line from Handel’s
haunted me: “But who may abide the day of His coming?” In a scrambled way, I thought of Hitler as a kind of Antichrist, and of course millions of people did not abide the day of his coming. Some people—Muslim thinkers—have said that Western civilization ended with all that preceded and comprised the conducting of World War II. Some say that in our beginning are the seeds of our ending, but I believe, more optimistically, that in our endings are new beginnings.
Of course I would not attempt to talk with Thom about the Anne Frank House or the Nazi atrocities until after luncheon, when we were alone. Although I had left the orthodoxy of the Christian religion long ago, I had been
moved, and that was what I wanted to discuss with Thom. I knew the profoundly disturbing Anne Frank House was sacred to the human spirit.
To try to settle myself (my
not just my nerves, teetering between my stunned wonder at Thom’s scientific discovery and the horror of human willingness to kill fellow humans), I had walked an extra block before I started down Prince Street toward the Blue Tulip. I suppose that decision to take the time, despite being late, to soothe my agitation into a smoother coherence saved my life.
Thinking of the Holocaust, I remembered when my fifth-grade class had visited the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. My school friend Janet Stimson had pointed at the balcony and said, “Murder. That’s what happened here. Real murder.” Despite Janet’s words, I had been unable to grasp that reality—the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in my hometown. That morning in Amsterdam, at the Anne Frank House, I had felt the edges of murder. Like a thin sizzle crossing from ear to ear, real murder seemed to skewer my mind.
And yes, because of the reality of mass murder, I
Thom to buy himself a grand piano. I would tell him that much at lunch—just lean over and whisper in his ear. “You don’t have to perform in Carnegie Hall,” I would whisper, “to deserve to play on a concert grand.” Painfully, I wondered as I walked what childish ditties Anne Frank might have sung when she was five or six. At that age she had been a friend of Thom’s mother. Playing tea party, the little girls had lifted thin Dresden cups and saucers over a toy table to their dolls. Equally innocent, one had lived a full life, married, had a brilliant son, and one had not.
Perhaps, I mused as I walked—
You’re late, you’re late, for a very important date
—Thom and I might have a child: a daughter named Sarah Anne, for Thom’s mother and Anne Frank. Late thirties was by no means too late to have a child.
A dark-skinned man wearing a loosely wrapped white turban leaned over the high windowsill and looked down to check the progress of the piano’s ascent. He might have been from India or Africa. I wondered if Martin Luther King Jr. had visited Africa, the continent of his ancestors and of all our ancestors for that matter, if science is to be believed, before he met death on the balcony
of the Lorraine Motel. I had the impulse to wave at the man, up there, but decided distraction would be unwelcome. His face seemed carved and soberly set. In the interior of my heart, I gave a discreet little wave. He reached out to touch the cable, almost as though he were twanging a single vertical string of a bass fiddle.
The piano continued to mount the sky. Strangely, it didn’t stop at the high open window, though the man reached out his dark arms through the space to guide it in. The piano continued to rise till the metal loop at the top of its sling slammed against the pulley—I heard the clangor of the collision. Held tightly against the pulley, the naked piano swung wildly. Suddenly the three cables broke apart at the top, opened, and released the expensive instrument and the three red cushions that had been protecting its glossy finish from the sling.