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Carson McCullers
1917-1967

   

Wunderkind

by Carson McCullers



   
 

           She came into the living room, her music satchel plopping against her winter-stockinged legs and her other arm weighted down with school books, and stood for a moment listening to the sounds from the studio. A soft procession of piano chords and the tuning of a violin. Then Mister Bilderbach called out to her in his chunky, guttural tones:
            "That you, Bienchen?"
            As she jerked off her mittens she saw that her fingers were twitching to the motions of the fugue she had practiced that morning. "Yes," she answered. "It's me;"
            "I," the voice corrected. "Just a moment."
            She could hear Mister Lafkowitz talking -- his words spun out in a silky, unintelligible hum. A voice almost like a woman's, she thought, compared to Mister Bilderbach's. Restlessness scattered her attention. She fumbled with her geometry book and Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon before putting them on the table. She sat down on the sofa and began to take her music from the satchel. Again she saw her hands -- the quivering tendons that stretched down from her knuckles, the sore finger tip capped with curled, dingy tape. The sight sharpened the fear that had begun to torment her for the past few months.
            Noiselessly she mumbled a few phrases of encouragement to herself. A good lesson -- a good lesson -- like it used to be -- Her lips closed as she heard the stolid sound of Mister Bilderbach's footsteps across the floor of the studio and the creaking of the door as it slid open.
            For a moment she had the peculiar feeling that during most of the fifteen years of her life she had been looking at the face and shoulders that jutted from behind the door, in a silence disturbed only by the muted, blank plucking of a violin string. Mister Bilderbach. Her teacher, Mr. Bilderbach. The quick eyes behind the horn-rimmed glasses; the light, thin hair and the narrow face beneath; the lips full and loose shut and the lower one pink and shining from the bites of his teeth; the forked veins in his temples throbbing plainly enough to be observed across the room.
            "Aren't you a little early?" he asked, glancing at the clock on the mantelpiece that had pointed to five minutes of twelve for a month. "Josef's in here. We're running over a little sonatino by someone he knows."
            "Good," she said, trying to smile. "I'll listen." She could see her fingers sinking powerless into a blur of piano keys. She felt tired -- felt that if he looked at her much longer her hands might tremble.
            He stood uncertain, halfway in the room. Sharply his teeth pushed down on his bright, swollen lips. "Hungry, Bienchen?" he asked. "There's some apple cake Anna made, and milk."
            "I'll wait till afterward," she said. "Thanks."
            "After you finish with a very fine lesson -- eh?" His smile seemed to crumble at the corners.
            There was a sound from behind him in the studio and Mister Lafkowitz pushed at the other panel of the door and stood beside him.
            "Frances?" he said, smiling. "And how is the work coming now?"
            Without meaning to, Mister Lafkowitz always made her feel clumsy and overgrown. He was such a small man himself, with a weary look when he was not holding his violin. His eyebrows curved high above his sallow, Jewish face as though asking a question, but the lids of his eyes drowsed languorous and indifferent. Today he seemed distracted. She watched him come into the room for no apparent purpose, holding his pearl-tipped bow in his still fingers, slowly gliding the white horsehair through a chalky piece of rosin. His eyes were sharp bright slits today and the linen handkerchief that flowed down from his collar darkened the shadows beneath them.
            "I gather you're doing a lot now," smiled Mister Lafkowitz, although she had not yet answered the question.
            She looked at Mister Bilderbach. He turned away. His heavy shoulders pushed the door open wide so that the late afternoon sun came through the window of the studio and shafted yellow over the dusty living room. Behind her teacher she could see the squat long piano, the window, and the bust of Brahms.
            "No," she said to Mister Lafkowitz, "I'm doing terribly." Her thin fingers flipped at the pages of her music. "I don't know what's the matter," she said, looking at Mister Bilderbach's stooped muscular back that stood tense and listening.
            Mister Lafkowitz smiled. "There are times, I suppose, when one --"
            A harsh chord sounded from the piano. "Don't you think we'd better get on with this?" asked Mister Bilderbach.
            "Immediately," said Mister Lafkowitz, giving the bow one more scrape before starting toward the door. She could see him pick up his violin from the top of the piano. He caught her eye and lowered the instrument "You've seen the picture of Heime?"
            Her fingers curled tight over the sharp corner of the satchel. "What picture?"
            "One of Heime in the Musical Courier there on the table. Inside the top cover."
            The sonatina began. Discordant yet somehow simple. Empty but with a sharp-cut style of its own. She reached for the magazine and opened it.
            There Heime was -- in the left-hand corner. Holding his violin with his fingers hooked down over the strings for a pizzicato. With his dark serge knickers strapped neatly beneath his knees, a sweater and rolled collar. It was a bad picture. Although it was snapped in profile his eyes were cut around toward the photographer and his finger looked as though it would pluck the wrong string. He seemed suffering to turn around toward the picture-taking apparatus. He was thinner -- his stomach did not poke out now -- but he hadn't changed much in six months.
            Heime Israelsky, talented young violinist, snapped while at work in his teacher's studio on Riverside Drive. Young Master Israelsky, who will soon celebrate his fifteenth birthday, has been invited to play the Beethoven Concerto with --
            That morning, after she had practiced from six until eight, her dad had made her sit down at the table with the family for breakfast. She hated breakfast; it gave her a sick feeling afterward. She would rather wait and get four chocolate bars with her twenty cents lunch money and munch them during school -- bringing up little morsels from the pocket under cover of her handkerchief, stopping dead when the silver paper rattled. But this morning her dad had put a fried egg on her plate and she had known that if it burst -- so that the slimy yellow oozed over the white -- she would cry. And that had happened. The same feeling was upon her now. Gingerly she laid the magazine back on the table and closed her eyes.
            The music in the studio seemed to be urging violently and clumsily for something that was not to be had. After a moment her thoughts drew back from Heime and the concerto and the picture -- and hovered around the lesson once more. She slid over on the sofa until she could see plainly into the studio -- the two of them playing, peering at the notations on the piano, lustfully drawing out all that was there.
            She could not forget the memory of Mister Bilderbach's face as he had stared at her a moment ago. Her hands, still twitching unconsciously to the motions of the fugue, closed over her bony knees. Tired, she was. And with a circling, sinking away feeling like the one that often came to her just before she dropped off to sleep on the nights when she had over-practiced. Like those weary half-dreams that buzzed and carried her out into their own whirligig space.
            A Wunderkind -- a Wunderkind -- a Wunderkind. The syllables would come out rolling in the deep German way, roar against her ears and then fall to a murmur. Along with the faces circling, swelling out in distortion, diminishing to pale blobs -- Mister Bilderbach, Mrs. Bilderbach, Heime, Mister Lafkowitz. Around and around in a circle revolving to the guttural Wunderkind. Mister Bilderbach looming large in the middle of the circle, his face urging -- with the others around him.
            Phrases of music seesawing crazily. Notes she had been practicing falling over each other like a handful of marbles dropped downstairs. Bach, Debussy, Prokofieff, Brahms -- timed grotesquely to the far off throb of her tired body and the buzzing circle.
            Sometimes -- when she had not worked more than three hours or had stayed out from high school -- the dreams were not so confused. The music soared clearly in her mind and quick, precise little memories would come back -- clear as the sissy "Age of Innocence" picture Heime had given her after their joint concert was over.
            A Wunderkind -- a Wunderkind. That was what Mister Bilderbach had called her when, at twelve, she first came to him. Older pupils had repeated the word.
            Not that he had ever said the word to her. "Bienchen --" (She had a plain American name but he never used it except when her mistakes were enormous.) "Bienchen," he would say, "I know it must be terrible. Carrying around all the time a head that thick. Poor Bienchen --"
            Mister Bilderbach's father had been a Dutch violinist. His mother was from Prague. He had been born in this country and had spent his youth in Germany. So many times she wished she had not been born and brought up in just Cincinnati. How do you say cheese in German? Mister Bilderbach, what is Dutch for I don't understand you?
            The first day she came to the studio. After she played the whole Second Hungarian Rhapsody from memory. The room graying with twilight. His face as he leaned over the piano.
            "Now we begin all over," he said that first day. "It -- playing music -- is more than cleverness. If a twelve-year-old girl's fingers cover so many keys to a second -- that means nothing."
            He tapped his broad chest and his forehead with his stubby hand. "Here and here. You are old enough to understand that." He lighted a cigarette and gently blew the first exhalation above her head. "And work -- work -- work -- . We will start now with these Bach Inventions and these little Schumann pieces." His hands moved again -- this time to jerk the cord of the lamp behind her and point to the music. "I will show you how I wish this practiced. Listen carefully now."
            She had been at the piano for almost three hours and was very tired. His deep voice sounded as though it had been straying inside her for a long time. She wanted to reach out and touch his muscle-flexed finger that pointed out the phrases, wanted to feel the gleaming gold band ring and the strong hairy back of his hand.
            She had lessons Tuesday after school and on Saturday afternoons. Often she stayed, when the Saturday lesson was finished, for dinner, and then spent the night and took the streetcar home the next morning. Mrs. Bilderbach liked her in her calm, almost dumb way. She was much different from her husband. She was quiet and fat and slow. When she wasn't in the kitchen, cooking the rich dishes that both of them loved, she seemed to spend all her time in their bed upstairs, reading magazines or just looking with a half-smile at nothing. When they had married in Germany she had been a lieder singer. She didn't sing anymore (she said it was her throat). When he would call her in from the kitchen to listen to a pupil she would always smile and say that it was gut, very gut.
When Frances was thirteen it came to her one day that the Bilderbachs had no children. It seemed strange. Once she had been back in the kitchen with Mrs. Bilderbach when he had come striding in from the studio, tense with anger at some pupil who had annoyed him. His wife stood stirring the thick soup until his hand groped out and rested on her shoulder. Then she turned -- stood placid -- while he folded his arms about her and buried his sharp face in the white, nerveless flesh of her neck. They stood that way without moving. And then his face jerked back suddenly, the anger diminished to a quiet inexpressiveness, and he had returned to the studio.
            After she had started with Mister Bilderbach and didn't have time to see anything of the people at high school, Heime had been the only friend of her own age. He was Mister Lafkowitz's pupil and would come with him to Mister Bilderbach's on evenings when she would be there. They would listen to their teachers' playing. And often they themselves went over chamber music together -- Mozart sonatas or Bloch.
            A Wunderkind -- a Wunderkind.
            Heime was a Wunderkind. He and she, then.
            Heime had been playing the violin since he was four. He didn't have to go to school; Mister Lafkowitz's brother, who was crippled, used to teach him geometry and European history and French verbs in the afternoon. When he was thirteen he had as fine a technique as any violinist in Cincinnati -- everyone said so. But playing the violin must be easier than the piano. She knew it must be.
            Heime always seemed to smell of corduroy pants and the food he had eaten and rosin. Half the time, too, his hands were dirty around the knuckles and the cuffs of his shirts peeped out dingily from the sleeves of his sweater. She always watched his hands when he played -- thin only at the joints with the hard little blobs of flesh bulging over the short-cut nails and the babyish-looking crease that showed so plainly in his bowing wrist.
            In the dreams, as when she was awake, she could remember the concert only in a blur. She had not known it was unsuccessful for her until months after. True, the papers had praised Heime more than her. But he was much shorter than she. When they stood together on the stage he came only to her shoulders. And that made a difference with people, she knew. Also, there was the matter of the sonata they played together. The Bloch.
            "No, no -- I don't think that would be appropriate." Mister Bilderbach had said when the Bloch was suggested to end the programme. "Now that John Powell thing -- the Sonate Virginianesque."
            She hadn't understood then; she wanted it to be the Bloch as much as Mister Lafkowitz and Heime.
            Mister Bilderbach had given in. Later, after the reviews had said she lacked the temperament for that type of music, after they called her playing thin and lacking in feeling, she felt cheated.
            "That oie oie stuff," said Mister Bilderbach, crackling the newspapers at her. "Not for you, Bienchen. Leave all that to the Heimes and vitses and skys."
            A Wunderkind. No matter what the papers said, that was what he had called her.
            Why was it Heime had done so much better at the concert than she? At school sometimes, when she was supposed to be watching someone do a geometry problem on the blackboard, the question would twist knife-like inside her. She would worry about it in bed, and even sometimes when she was supposed to be concentrating at the piano. It wasn't just the Bloch and her not being Jewish -- not entirely. It wasn't that Heime didn't have to go to school and had begun his training so early, either. It was --?
            Once she thought she knew.
            "Play the Fantasia and Fugue," Mister Bilderbach had demanded one evening a year ago -- after he and Mister Lafkowitz had finished reading some music together.
            The Bach, as she played, seemed to her well done. From the tail of her eye she could see the calm, pleased expression on Mister Bilderbach's face, see his hands rise climactically from the chair arms and then sink down loose and satisfied when the high points of the phrases had been passed successfully. She stood up from the piano when it was over, swallowing to loosen the bands that the music seemed to have drawn around her throat and chest. But --
            "Frances --" Mister Lafkowitz had said then, suddenly, looking at her with his thin mouth curved and his eyes almost covered by their delicate lids. "Do you know how many children Bach had?"
            She turned to him, puzzled. "A good many. Twenty some odd."
            "Well then --" The corners of his smile etched themselves gently in his pale face. "He could not have been so cold -- then."
            Mister Bilderbach was not pleased; his guttural effulgence of German words had Kind in it somewhere. Mister Lafkowitz raised his eyebrows. She had caught the point easily enough, but she felt no deception in keeping her face blank and immature because that was the way Mister Bilderbach wanted her to look.
            Yet such things had nothing to do with it. Nothing very much, at least, for she would grow older. Mister Bilderbach understood that, and even Mister Lafkowitz had not meant just what he said.
            In the dreams Mister Bilderbach's face loomed out and contracted in the center of the whirling circle. The lips urging softly, the veins in his temples insisting.
            But sometimes, before she slept, there were such clear memories; as when she pulled a hole in the heel of her stocking down, so that her shoe would hide it. "Bienchen, Bienchen!" And bringing Mrs. Bilderbach's work basket in and showing her how it should be darned and not gathered together in a lumpy heap.
            And the time she graduated from Junior High.
            "What you wear?" asked Mrs. Bilderbach the Sunday morning at breakfast when she told them about how they had practiced to march into the auditorium.
            "An evening dress my cousin had last year."
            "Ah -- Bienchen!" he said, circling his warm coffee cup with his heavy hands, looking up at her with wrinkles around his laughing eyes. "I bet I know what Bienchen wants --"
            He insisted. He would not believe her when she explained that she honestly didn't care at all.
            "Like this, Anna," he said, pushing his napkin across the table and mincing to the other side of the room, swishing his hips, rolling up his eyes behind his horn-rimmed glasses.
            The next Saturday afternoon, after her lessons, he took her to the department stores downtown. His thick fingers smoothed over the filmy nets and crackling taffetas that the saleswomen unwound from their bolts. He held colors to her face, cocking his head to one side, and selected pink. Shoes, he remembered too. He liked best some white kid pumps. They seemed a little like old ladies' shoes to her and the Red Cross label in the instep had a charity look. But it really didn't matter at all. When Mrs. Bilderbach began to cut out the dress and fit it to her with pins, he interrupted his lessons to stand by and suggest ruffles around the hips and neck and a fancy rosette on the shoulder. The music was coming along nicely then. Dresses and commencement and such made no difference.
            Nothing mattered much except playing the music as it must be played, bringing out the thing that must be in her, practicing, practicing, playing so that Mister Bilderbach's face lost some of its urging look. Putting the thing into her music that Myra Hess had, and Yehudi Menuhin -- even Heime!
            What had begun to happen to her four months ago? The notes began springing out with a glib, dead intonation. Adolescence, she thought. Some kids played with promise -- and worked and worked until, like her, the least little thing would start them crying, and worn out with trying to get the thing across -- the longing thing they felt -- something queer began to happen -- But not she! She was like Heime. She had to be. She --
            Once it was there for sure. And you didn't lose things like that. A Wunderkind. . . A Wunderkind. . . Of her he said it, rolling the words in the sure, deep German way. And in the dreams even deeper, more certain than ever. With his face looming out at her, and the longing phrases of music mixed in with the zooming, circling round, round, round -- A Wunderkind. A Wunderkind. . . This afternoon Mister Bilderbach did not show Mister Lafkowitz to the front door, as he usually did. He stayed at the piano, softly pressing a solitary note. Listening, Frances watches the violinist wind his scarf about his pale throat.
            "A good picture of Heime," she said, picking up her music. "I got a letter from him a couple of months ago -- telling about hearing Schnabel and Huberman and about Carnegie Hall and things to eat at the Russian Tea Room."
            To put off going into the studio a moment longer she waited until Mister Lafkowitz was ready to leave and then stood behind him as he opened the door. The frosty cold outside cut into the room. It was growing late and the air was seeped with the pale yellow of winter twilight. When the door swung to on its hinges, the house seemed darker and more silent than ever before she had known it to be.
            As she went into the studio Mister Bilderbach got up from the piano and silently watched her settle herself at the keyboard.
            "Well, Bienchen," he said, "this afternoon we are going to begin all over. Start from scratch. Forget the last few months."
            He looked as though he were trying to act a part in a movie. His solid body swayed from toe to heel, he rubbed his hands together, and even smiled in a satisfied, movie way. Then suddenly he thrust this manner brusquely aside. His heavy shoulders slouched and he began to run through the stack of music she had brought in. "The Bach -- no, not yet," he murmured. "The Beethoven? Yes, the Variation Sonata. Opus. 26."
            The keys of the piano hemmed her in -- stiff and white and dead-seeming.
            "Wait a minute," he said. He stood in the curve of the piano, elbows propped, and looked at her. "Today I expect something from you. Now this sonata -- it's the first Beethoven sonata you ever worked on. Every note is under control -- technically -- you have nothing to cope with but the music. Only music now. That's all you think about."
            He rustled through the pages of her volume until he found the place. Then he pulled his teaching chair halfway across the room, turned it around and seated himself, straddling the back with his legs.
            For some reason, she knew, this position of his usually had a good effect on her performance. But today she felt that she would notice him from the corner of her eye and be disturbed. His back was stiffly tilted, his legs looked tense. The heavy volume before him seemed to balance dangerously on the chair back. "Now we begin," he said with a peremptory dart of his eyes in her direction.
            Her hands rounded over the keys and then sank down. The first notes were too loud, the other phrases followed dryly.
            Arrestingly his hand rose up from the score. "Wait! Think a minute what you're playing. How is this beginning marked?"
            "An-andante."
            "All right. Don't drag it into an adagio then. And play deeply into the keys. Don't snatch it off shallowly that way. A graceful, deep-toned andante --"
            She tried again. Her hands seemed separate from the music that was in her.
            "Listen," he interrupted. "Which of these variations dominates the whole?"
            "The dirge," she answered.
            "Then prepare for that. This is an andante -- but it's not salon stuff as you just played it. Start out softly, piano, and make it swell out just before the arpeggio. Make it warm and dramatic. And down here -- where it's marked dolce make the counter melody sing out. You know all that. We've gone over all that side of it before. Now play it. Feel it as Beethoven wrote it down. Feel that tragedy and restraint."
            She could not stop looking at his hands. They seemed to rest tentatively on the music, ready to fly up as a stop signal as soon as she would begin, the gleaming flash of his ring calling her to halt. "Mister Bilderbach -- maybe if I -- if you let me play on through the first variation without stopping I could do better."
            "I won't interrupt," he said.
            Her pale face leaned over too close to the keys. She played through the first part, and, obeying a nod from him, began the second. There were no flaws that jarred on her, but the phrases shaped from her fingers before she had put into them the meaning that she felt.
            When she had finished he looked up from the music and began to speak with dull bluntness: "I hardly heard those harmonic fillings in the right hand. And incidentally, this part was supposed to take on intensity, develop the foreshadowings that were supposed to be inherent in the first part. Go on with the next one, though."
            She wanted to start it with subdued viciousness and progress to a feeling of deep, swollen sorrow. Her mind told her that. But her hands seemed to gum in the keys like limp macaroni and she could not imagine the music as it should be.
            When the last note had stopped vibrating, he closed the book and deliberately got up from the chair. He was moving his lower jaw from side to side -- and between his open lips she could glimpse the pink healthy lane to his throat and his strong, smoke-yellowed teeth. He laid the Beethoven gingerly on top of the rest of her music and propped his elbows on the smooth, black piano top once more. "No," he said simply, looking at her.
            Her mouth began to quiver. "I can't help it. I --"
            Suddenly he strained his lips into a smile. "Listen, Bienchen," he began in a new, forced voice. "You still play the Harmonious Blacksmith, don't you? I told you not to drop it from your repertoire."
            "Yes," she said. "I practice it now and then."
            His voice was the one he used for children. "It was among the first things we worked on together -- remember. So strongly you used to play it -- like a real blacksmith's daughter. You see, Bienchen, I know you so well -- as if you were my own girl. I know what you have -- I've heard you play so many things beautifully. You used to --"
            He stopped in confusion and inhaled from his pulpy stub of cigarette. The smoke drowsed out from his pink lips and clung in a gray mist around her lank hair and childish forehead.
            "Make it happy and simple," he said, switching on the lamp behind her and stepping back from the piano.
            For a moment he stood just inside the bright circle the light made. Then impulsively he squatted down to the floor. "Vigorous," he said.
            She could not stop looking at him, sitting on one heel with the other foot resting squarely before him for balance, the muscles of his strong thighs straining under the cloth of his trousers, his back straight, his elbows staunchly propped on his knees. "Simply now," he repeated with a gesture of his fleshy hands. "Think of the blacksmith -- working out in the sunshine all day. Working easily and undisturbed."
            She could not look down at the piano. The light brightened the hairs on the backs of his outspread hands, made the lenses of his glasses glitter.
            "All of it," he urged. "Now!"
            She felt that the marrows of her bones were hollow and there was no blood left in her. Her heart that had been springing against her chest all afternoon felt suddenly dead. She saw it gray and limp and shriveled at the edges like an oyster.
            His face seemed to throb out in space before her, come closer with the lurching motion in the veins of his temples. In retreat, she looked down at the piano. Her lips shook like jelly and a surge of noiseless tears made the white keys blur in a watery line. "I can't," she whispered. "I don't know why, but I just cant -- can't any more."
            His tense body slackened and, holding his hand to his side, he pulled himself up. She clutched her music and hurried past him.
            Her coat. The mittens and galoshes. The schoolbooks and the satchel he had given her on her birthday. All from the silent room that was hers. Quickly -- before he would have to speak.
            As she passed through the vestibule she could not help but see his hands -- held out from his body that leaned against the studio door, relaxed and purposeless. The door shut to firmly. Dragging her books and satchel she stumbled down the stone steps, turned in the wrong direction, and hurried down the street that had become confused with noise and bicycles and the games of other children.

 
           

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Last updated:
November 14, 2008
   
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