Russian Rhapsody

“Russian Rhapsody”

by Forrest Brazeal

If you want to find the zone, you must first relax your arms and shoulders. Natural technique flows from the core of the body in radiant waves. A pianist who relies only on the power of fingers and wrists will play expressionlessly and without understanding. Instead of the zone, he or she will find demons: bursitis, tendinitis, carpal tunnel. “Performance injuries,” the Americans call them.

Yuriy looks down at his hands, at the gnarled streaks of scar tissue. Some well-meaning college administrator in Topeka once asked if the scars came from “all those years of playing.” Idiot. As if his performances were like boxing, every round etching fresh damage on the body. A great piano performance should invigorate, revivify.

Yuriy prefers to call his old wounds “performance-related injuries.”

Next, you must find a piece of music that will carry you. The music is your runway as well as your ride to the zone. A short piece of music, or a trite one, will never lift you off the ground. The right piece must bring forth passionate depths of lyrical expression and inspired heights of technical brilliance. An orchestra helps, but a few solo works will do: Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, some of the Brahms Rhapsodies, the very best of Rachmaninoff and Debussy, and nearly any significant work by Bach.

Yuriy got to the zone once with a Haydn sonatina, but that was really more about his performance than the material he had to work with. That was when he could find the zone almost every time he sat down at the keyboard, like a remembered path in the forests of his early childhood.

Third, you must not become frightened.

That is what Yuriy’s performance teacher, old Comrade Ivanovich, told him after the first time, after he had shocked back into his body and tumbled off the piano stool onto the concrete floor. Comrade Ivanovich cradled him in his arms like a baby, though he was a big boy nearly nine years old, and whispered to him over and over, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Yuriy was young enough, that first time, that he took the experience more or less in stride. One moment he was flying along through Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia, feeling more by instinct than good sense the raw power of those unrelenting arpeggios, shaping them under his racing fingers so that they seemed to stand out from the aural plane in three-dimensional clarity — (Comrade Ivanovich breathing at his elbow, “Yes! That’s very good. Open it up!”) — and then suddenly, just as he hung suspended from the ornamental figure at the very top of the music, something really did open up. Yuriy had been playing as always with his eyes tight shut, and yet he received the distinct impression that he was rushing toward a bright light. Ivanovich’s voice seemed to warp backwards out of earshot. For a moment he experienced dizzying vertigo as though falling from a great height.

“I heard the whole piece, the Fantasia, all at once,” he explained to Comrade Ivanovich afterwards. His thoughts raced ahead of his vocabulary so that he stammered and gestured wildly. “It was like visiting the great aquarium at the zoo. All the notes swam in front of me like beautiful fish.”

“How long did this feeling last?” asked Ivanovich.

“It wasn’t a feeling. It was a place — a place without any time.” Yuriy was so excited he was almost crying. “I got down from the piano and walked and walked. And white dust was everywhere, and a lot of birds, and I met a funny boy with a flute.”

“I see,” said Ivanovich. “And how did you return?”

“I don’t know,” said Yuriy. “I began to whistle a tune: the Revolutionary Heroes’ March.” This was a popular mass song of the day. “And then I was back.”

He was surprised to hear, after a moment, a faint wheezing sound coming from behind the teacher’s goatlike beard. “I suppose,” murmured Ivanovich, “that if a great piece of music got you into this — ah, whatever this place was — then it stands to reason that a terrible piece of music would get you out.”

Yuriy suspected his teacher was laughing at him. He slipped to the floor and put his head between his knees. “You don’t believe me.”

“It’s quite a story. I liked it,” said Ivanovich. “But you should be careful who you tell it to.”

The only other person Yuriy told about the zone was Ekaterina.

“I don’t understand,” she said simply, after he had explained it three times. She stared at him with wide light-colored eyes. The harsh winter sunlight made a fiery halo around her head.

“Neither do I.” The two of them sat side by side on a bench in the garden of the conservatory. In the harsh winter sunlight it was hard to believe his own story. “But I want to try again, as soon as the bell rings.”

The governors of the conservatory strictly regulated the half hour in the garden, like every other moment of the children’s lives. Yuriy practiced some seven hours a day, or he didn’t eat. Ekaterina, who was not believed to be a future concert pianist, had four hours of practice, supplemented with extra classes in theory and pedagogy. Nevertheless, she said she would like to try and reach the zone herself.

Weaving on the bench like a puppet master, holding his slender hands on top of her chubby ones, Yuriy did his best to show her what he remembered of his tempo and movements from the incident in Comrade Ivanovich’s studio. Really, he had no idea what he had done to reach the zone. When he got back to a piano, he tried to play just as he had done before, but he glimpsed no lights and felt no upward movement. Ekaterina, though he heard her fumbling doggedly through the Chromatic Fantasia for several days afterwards, had no better luck.

Yuriy went some months without finding the zone again, long enough that he had almost given it up as a particularly vivid dream. When he found it next, he was alone in a practice room with a mild cold and Brahms’ towering Second Piano Sonata. The music sucked at his gut, pulling ropy strains of emotion out of him like his own entrails. At some point near the end of the first movement, he became dizzy and his vision glazed over. When he could see again, he was no longer in the practice room. Yuriy and the piano sat in the midst of a vast white expanse, as though they had been dropped by helicopter onto a Siberian steppe. He was not cold.

He was a little less startled than he had been the first time, so after the initial shock he kept playing the Brahms. Only now, rather than holding a single place in the thread of the music, he could envision the entire sonata from beginning to end. Viewed this way, the piece took on the distinct form of a snared beast, with its writhing hind limbs suspended between the first and second movements and white eyes staring from the coda. The visceral impact of this image so entranced Yuriy that he got up and took a quick dancing turn around the piano, crunching the white detritus of the zone underfoot. He felt like a painter who, after years of seeing only one brush stroke on his canvas at a time, suddenly beholds his entire masterpiece all at once. He sat down and began to play the sonata again. He saw the beast even better this time.

After a few runs of the Brahms, Yuriy found the freedom of the zone so exhilarating that he could no longer concentrate. He wanted to run and laugh, skidding his feet in the white stuff that stretched to the horizon, and so he did. No chap-cheeked matron in a wool dress hollered at him; no portrait of Stalin or Lenin frowned at him over the piano. He could sing out loud, shout if he wanted to, scaring the birds that wheeled and swooped above him. (Could the white substance underfoot be their accumulated guano? It was paper-dry and had no smell.)

When he grew bored, he whistled the Revolutionary Heroes’ March and found himself back in the Balakirev Conservatory for Young Musicians. No appreciable time had passed in his practice room.

He found the zone more easily the third time, after only a few days, and the fourth trip came easier still. He learned he was more likely to reach the white place when he didn’t try to force his way, when he let the music flow out of him without any of the mannered flourishes his fellow students loved to invent. Great music wants to find the zone. He, Yuriy Leschinskaya, was a conduit of the music, not a conductor.

But classical piano playing was not the only kind of music that found the zone. Songbirds collected in the zone the way silt collects in the trap of a sink drain, and Yuriy liked to imagine the surprise that must be in their tiny brains to find themselves suddenly transported to this place after a particularly inspired coo or peewit.

He had more trouble figuring out the boy. Yuriy had seen him on his very first visit to the zone, peeking warily around the back of Comrade Ivanovich’s piano, and after that encountered him every few trips. The boy wore a linen smock and had a crude brand on his forehead in the shape of an eye. His real eyes, round and dark, looked perpetually into the middle distance unless he was hunting birds, which he snatched out of the air with his bare hands.

How the boy had arrived in the zone was clear enough: he wore a rudimentary pan pipe on a leather strap around his neck, and seemed in no hurry to return to whatever sheepfold or barbarians’ dinner party he’d transcended. Sometimes his pipe music drifted out of the white distance, and the sound was unbearably haunting and sweet.

The boy lived in the only man-made object Yuriy had found anywhere on the zone’s endless horizon: a gigantic iron locomotive on its side in a snowdrift of white flakes, trailing a couple of smashed-up boxcars behind it. The tender had English words on it: CENTRAL & OHIO LIMITED. Yuriy guessed that the steam whistle, now forever silent, had produced some kind of sublime howl that brought the whole train roaring into the zone. The boy had made himself a nest in the firebox, very grubby. For this reason, and because all attempts to learn the boy’s real name failed, Yuriy dubbed him Coal Boy.

They settled into a working relationship based on the principle of coexistence. Yuriy played his piano as much as he wanted, but did not invade the locomotive. Coal Boy refrained from killing birds while Yuriy was practicing. He seemed to kill for sport rather than out of hunger.

“In the zone, I never get hungry or tired,” Yuriy bragged to Comrade Ivanovich. “I must have practiced for hundreds of hours this week.”

Ivanovich did not seem as impressed as Yuriy thought he ought to be. “I wish you would be careful,” the old man said, scratching two fingers through his beard. “I don’t understand what you are doing, what state of mind you cultivate to achieve this effect on yourself, but it strikes me as dangerous for a growing boy. I would rather you stick with the practice regimen that I have taught you.”

Yuriy bowed slightly from the waist as he had been taught. “Thank you, Comrade Ivanovich.”

Ivanovich settled back into his chair and continued to probe Yuriy with puzzled, unhappy eyes. “I remember once, many years ago, hearing a lecture by Scriabin. He had spent much of his career seeking synthesis between music, color, and light, and he spoke of a world where these things were one. Nobody seemed to know what he was talking about.”

“Scriabin was a great artist,” said Yuriy politely.

“He died young,” said the teacher.

A few weeks later, Comrade Ivanovich vanished from the conservatory. Nobody commented publicly on his absence. In those days it was best to pretend the periodic disappearance of intellectuals was a natural event, like puddles evaporating after rain. In Ivanovich’s place came a succession of younger instructors, hard men with no tolerance for the unexpected.

Yuriy did not tell Ekaterina anything more about the zone, although he would have liked to, because her parents pulled her out of the conservatory around that time. The new instructors had informed them she had no talent.

Yuriy took refuge in the zone more and more frequently, and even considered becoming a permanent resident like Coal Boy. But at night, when he lay on his narrow bed in the boys’ dormitory, the bells of Moscow lifted him on towers of soothing sound, pre-tonal symphonies as bold as Prokofiev and as urgent as Shostakovich. He could not bring himself to leave the world and its music altogether.

As Yuriy grew, he began to view his relationship to the zone like the affinity between water and steam. When water reaches its boiling point, it changes phase, becomes an entirely different substance. In the same way, when his musicianship reached a certain critical level of harmony with the universe, he and the music fundamentally changed, embodying some higher but no less elemental form. It was at this level he could perceive music outside the ordinary bounds of linear time.

Here, in the congenial company of Coal Boy and the songbirds, he learned to examine every aspect of his playing the way a sculptor studies a block of marble for blemishes, shaping his performance of each piece until it stood perfectly balanced and free from fault. He could stay in the zone for the equivalent of days, exhaustively polishing the rough edges of his art, then emerge at the same time he entered. He could pack years of musical development into the space between two of his daily lessons.

(He made the water and steam analogy at a master class with a roomful of other students and received polite nods of agreement. The zone’s great protection, he discovered, is that you really can’t describe it without it sounding like a metaphor.)

Once he had mastered the ability to find the zone almost at will, he surpassed his peers at a rate that drew first resentment, then open jealousy, then grudging admiration, and finally a kind of hilarious awe. By the age of sixteen he was winning prizes at competitions against concert artists with twenty years of experience. At age eighteen he placed first in the famous Mussorgsky Medal, a multi-instrument event that drew the greatest classical musicians from across the Soviet Diaspora. A newspaper critic at that time, setting aside his usual disgust for the modern generation, marveled at Yuriy’s “fundamental grasp of the infinite” and said that he showed the spiritual maturity of a late-period Rachmaninov.

He saw Ekaterina again at the Mussorgsky finals. She was nineteen then, and had just emerged from another conservatory — one where she, or her father’s Party standing, had convinced the instructors she might have talent after all. She did not place in the finals. Halfway through her rendition of Saint-Saens’ Fifth Piano Concerto, which Yuriy found a bit brittle and under-imagined, he stopped listening altogether and just watched her, admiring the way her pale hair flowed down the back of her black dress and her slim legs stretched toward the pedals.

Yuriy soloed with the Moscow Symphony three times before he was twenty-two. By now it was an open secret in the musical community that Comrade Leschinskaya entered some sort of fugue state at the keyboard, one that afforded him almost supernatural performing ability. He began to be inundated with bribes.

Dmitri Lysenko, a fellow pianist, offered Yuriy fifty thousand dollars in American money if he could teach him his professional secrets. A wealthy father demanded Yuriy’s tutelage for his young son in return for a half interest in the family shipping firm. Letters arrived at Yuriy’s little room near the symphony hall from across the Eurasian continent and beyond, some censored to bits by the state, each with its own pathetic proposal.

Yuriy let the letters and telegrams pile up unread. He continued to visit the zone by himself, even when he didn’t feel like practicing. Time in the white place was unlimited, and belonged only to him.

How, then, did Ekaterina get into the zone?

They found each other again in Volgograd, where she was the orchestra pianist and he a guest artist. He had commented teasingly on her poor wrist posture. She had suggested his tail coat made him look like a duck. They began reminiscing about the old days in the Balakirev Conservatory, and ended up after the performance in her apartment, with Garanian on the record player and a bottle of vodka shared between them.

Later, as they lay on one of the rubberized surplus mattresses passing in those days for a bed, she said: “I never forgot what you told me, Yuriy. About the zone.”

“We were children,” he said after a moment. He had been nearly asleep.

“I tried so many ways to get there.” She cuddled against his side, one leg caressing him. “I prayed both to heaven and to hell.”

“You shouldn’t be so superstitious, Katya,” he said. “Hard work will get you farther.”

“I know hard work.” Her body grew rigid. “I practiced like a dog to become a pianist. I wanted it more than anything in the world.”

“That is good.”

She lifted herself on one elbow to peer down at him. “Can’t you show me again? I’m sure I can find the zone now. I just need a small hint. A boost.”

A sliver of light from the narrow window at the top of the wall caught her hair and forehead. Yuriy thought he had never seen anyone so beautiful. “Tomorrow, I will show you what I know. But don’t get your hopes up.”

The next day, they spent hours at her decrepit console piano. Yuriy showed her how he breathed, how he listened, how he let the music lead him where it wished to go. She paid careful attention, fixing her pale earnest eyes on him, and copied his movements as closely as she could. In spite of himself, he was impressed with her. “You have made yourself into a fine pianist.”

“It’s not working.” She blinked back tears. “I think you’re making a fool of me.”

“Be patient,” said Yuriy. “It will come. I’ve been in and out of the zone three times in the last hour. Once you get used to it, it’s as easy as that.”

She held his gaze for a moment, and a strange vigor, a will stronger than his own, flowed through her into him. “Take me with you.” She tugged his hand. “There must be a way.”

He thought for a moment. “Do you know Rachmaninov’s Russian Rhapsody?”

“Yes. Both parts.”

“I’ll take the primo part. We’ll need a second piano.”

They found two pianos in the back of the opera house. Yuriy seated himself at the newer one. “Follow my lead. And play with such feeling that it lifts you off the ground.”

They launched together into the Russian Rhapsody, that tricky collection of variations for two keyboards. Yuriy leaned into the music, waiting for the dizzy uprush to the zone, but instead experienced a distinct downward-dragging sensation — just as, when you put your foot on a car’s malfunctioning accelerator, you get the illusion of braking.

Ekaterina faced him over the adjoining piano, her lips moving soundlessly as she plowed through the variations. Her elbows scissored on either side of her body. “Relax,” he called over the thundering pianos. “You’re trying too hard. Let the music take you.”

She nodded jerkily. He closed his eyes again, searching for that remembered path in the music, that sunlit avenue stretching toward the zone. He rose more slowly than usual, first being dragged backward, then inching forward. With a final convulsive effort, like crawling over a second-story window sill, he hauled himself into the zone.

Yuriy was quite out of breath, as though after strenuous exercise. He sat at his stool and mopped his forehead with one sleeve. One of the more audacious birds, a thrush, flew down to perch on his shoulder.

“Oh,” Ekaterina’s voice sounded behind him. “Oh.”

Hearing another voice in the white place startled him so thoroughly that he jumped and spun around, half-expecting to see Coal Boy with his tongue loosened. Instead, Ekaterina sat in front of her piano, her eyes as wide as cymbals, head swiveling from side to side as she strained to make sense of her surroundings. “Oh,” she gasped again.

Yuriy managed a smile. “Welcome to my studio.”

“Oh, it’s beautiful.” She put one hand to the side of her head and closed her eyes. “And I see the music. Just like you said. I see the music, Yuriy!” With a sudden flurry of arms and legs she leaped up from her piano and scrambled into his arms, kissing him on both cheeks. The thrush flew away with an alarmed rustle.

Coal Boy stood a few yards away, watching silently.

Ekaterina, red-faced and laughing, pulled Yuriy down, and they rolled together in the white flakes. “What is this stuff?”

“I don’t know.”

She sifted a handful of the papery stuff through her fingers, blew it roguishly in his face. “Ashes.”

Yuriy craned his neck to find Coal Boy, but he was gone.

Yuriy did not visit the zone for a couple of days after that. He was uneasy, almost embarrassed, as though he had exposed a vulnerable part of himself at great personal risk. He tried to focus on how happy Ekaterina had looked, and the promises of love she had whispered in his ear.

When he did return to the zone, he was stunned and not at all pleased to find her there waiting for him. “How did you get here?”

She smiled, clearly delighted with herself, from behind her own console piano. “I did it all by myself!” she crowed. “Once you showed me the way, Yuriy, it was practically easy. I’ve been here for — I don’t know — days and days. Time is different here.”

“So it is.” Yuriy scratched the back of his head. “Well, it’s time for you to leave now. I need to practice.”

“So practice.” Ekaterina indicated the wide white horizon with a sweep of her arm. “There’s plenty of room for two.”

“No, there isn’t. I need solitude, no distractions.”

“I’ll be quiet,” she promised. And she was, mostly. But he couldn’t concentrate on his work, and eventually left the zone by crashing his fists on the keyboard in frustration.

At the International Keyboard Invitational in Minsk a few days later, Yuriy astonished himself and everyone else by not winning first prize in his category. His program, though technically flawless, lacked some of his usual depth of lyrical insight. “An off night,” said one of the organizers to him sympathetically. Yuriy just scowled. He did not believe in metronomes, performance injuries, or off nights.

First prize went, instead, to Comrade Ekaterina Kordova of Volgograd. She brought stunning clarity and power to her ambitious late Romantic program. Yuriy did not become distracted this time by her personal charms. Her music held him pinned, breathless, to his chair.

He confronted her afterwards backstage, where she stood alone, clutching a bouquet of winter flowers from her father. “Where did you find that performance? I’ve heard you play before, Katya. You’re good. But that — that was greatness.”

She regarded him dreamily, upturning her face for a kiss. “I’ve been in the zone for a long time.”

Yuriy ignored the proffered cheek. “How long?”

“I lost track. Eighty years? Maybe more.”

Anger boiled in Yuriy’s stomach. “You had no right to use the zone so long. I brought you there as a special favor, a treat. And this is how you repay me?”

Her pale eyes narrowed. “You don’t have exclusive rights to the zone. I got there on my own. I have every right to use it.”

“I forbid you from the zone.”

“Don’t patronize me.” Ekaterina smacked her bouquet onto a nearby music stand. “Don’t you think I’ve noticed how you treat me? You’ve always thought me inferior. You indulge me because you think I’m not a threat.”

“That’s not true.”

“Sure it is. Only I’m every bit as good as you now. And you won’t stand in my way.”

A couple of stagehands looked curiously at them. Yuriy lowered his voice and jabbed his forefinger at her. “I came from nothing. Music, and the love of music, is all I have. You were born with every advantage except natural talent. Why do you want to take my only gift?”

“Hard work is my talent. All I need is time. And thanks to you, I have all the time in the world.”

Yuriy drew himself up to his full five feet, six inches. “I never want to see or hear you in the zone again. If I meet you there, I will not be responsible for your welfare.”

She bowed slightly, from the waist, as they had been taught so long ago. “Thank you, Comrade Leschinskaya.”

They saw no more of each other in the real world after that, except at competitions where Ekaterina increasingly held the upper hand. Yuriy always had been prone to fits of artistic endeavor followed by fallow periods. The power of the zone had enabled him to get away with this. But Ekaterina used the zone efficiently and relentlessly, the way a machine uses diesel fuel. She thought nothing of cramming decades of practice time in between two performances. He struggled to match her pace.

If Yuriy caught Ekaterina in the zone, a heartfelt screaming match inevitably ensued. Yuriy would do his best to sabotage her practice session by smacking her keyboard with both arms, hurling them both out of the zone. Ekaterina began placing a can of black-market pepper spray on top of her piano.

Coal Boy no longer hung around during Yuriy’s practice sessions, and spent most of his time hiding in the locomotive. The birds squawked and scattered when one of the dueling pianists appeared.

Yuriy found that he was spending less and less of his time in the zone actually practicing, but he was staying there longer than ever. He would huddle on his bench watching Ekaterina, as though he could maintain some kind of tenuous power over her by constant vigilance.

One day, soon after she had replaced him as the resident artist for the Volgograd symphony, he found her in the zone not at the piano, but crawling over the locomotive, poking at the engine with a long-handled wrench. Coal Boy cowered under one of the boxcars.

“Hey!” he called. “What do you think you’re doing?”

She paid no attention to him. Eventually he settled down to practice alone, pleased that for once he was getting ahead of her.

When he returned to the zone, she was waiting for him, and she was not alone. A diffident-looking gentleman in a dirt-red scarf sat beside her on a bicycle. She gestured at the stranger. “Comrade Leschinskaya, I would like you to meet Ilya.”

Yuriy blinked. “You taught — you taught another pianist to find this place?”

“Of course not. There are one too many pianists here already. Ilya is a poet.”

“An underground poet.” Ilya tugged at his scarf. “Not yet published.”

“He needs a place to work undisturbed, and offered me a surprising amount of money,” she went on, “so he’ll be joining us here for awhile.”

“First of all,” said Yuriy, “he will not be. Second, how in the devil’s name did you bring him here? He’s not even a musician.”

Ekaterina kicked the front tire of the bicycle. Mounted above the handlebars was an aluminum-foil contraption with a morning-glory horn protruding from it. “I’ve been studying that old locomotive. I realized — if a freight train could get here, so could any other vehicle. We can bring passengers to the zone. All it takes is the right whistle.”

Yuriy lunged at the apparatus on the bicycle. Ekaterina stepped in front of him, smiling, and he checked himself. “I don’t want to fight with you, Comrade Leschinskaya. And anyway, there’s more to life than music. Why not go in with me on this business venture? We can bring artists here — painters, poets, novelists — anyone whose work is constrained by time. All black market, no queues, no papers.”

Yuriy shook his head. “I loved this place because it was as private and free as my own mind. I have no interest in running a bus terminal for a bunch of starving artists.”

“That’s too bad.” She continued to smile. “You’re passing up a good deal.”

“But perhaps, after all, you’re right,” said Yuriy. “Perhaps everybody should see this place. The Committee for State Security, for instance. I’m sure they’d be impressed to learn that a Party officer’s daughter is running such a fine black market operation.”

Ekaterina stopped smiling.

“I propose a deal of my own, Comrade Kornova.” Yuriy picked out a few notes on the piano with one hand. “The zone clearly isn’t big enough for both of us, so let’s play for it. The Russian Rhapsody is as good a piece as any. We’ll use the two pianos in the Volgograd opera house, and the first to reach the zone wins. If I get there first, you destroy this stupid bicycle horn and never set foot in the zone again. If you get there first” — he paused — “I’ll leave the zone myself. You can spoil it however you like.”

Her pale eyes turned inward as she considered the offer. “Very well, Comrade Leschinskaya. We’ll play the Rhapsody tomorrow. But I want the primo part.”

Now, so many years later, Yuriy remembers Ekaterina’s face at the piano across from him as she plunged into the Rhapsody — the confident set of her jaw, her flashing eyes and flushed cheeks. She looked beautiful, but her beauty had become cold and inexorable, like the progress of a glacier.

He remembers his own scrambling fingers and racing heart as he struggled to keep up. He knows now that he erred by permitting a day’s wait before the duel. Who knows how many years she spent in the zone during the course of that day, polishing and shaping the Rhapsody into something that was less music than liquid fire? In response, he summoned every fiber of musicianship, every ounce of love for the piano into his playing, until he was emotionally evacuated and very nearly sick.

And there came the path to the zone, rushing toward him behind his closed eyelids. The first time he played with Ekaterina, he had more or less dragged her into the zone on the back of his own performance. This time, she was the stronger one, and was pulling him. He became so dizzy that he could hardly keep his fingers on the keys.

Then they were both in the white place, scattering birds around them in all directions. As far as he could tell they had arrived at exactly the same time, so the duel was a draw, but neither made any move to stop playing. They continued to rush forward.

The zone grew whiter and brighter around him, color and light mingling with the music in overwhelming synesthesia. The three-dimensional picture of the Rhapsody in his mind’s eye changed and stretched. The music itself was a bird, he realized, pinned tenuously to the ground by their frail human bodies, struggling to break free.

They reached the great cadenza in the primo part and Yuriy dropped out, seeing the bird grow stronger and more terrible as Ekaterina gave it wings with her playing. She was swaying at the keys, letting the music breathe through her fingers as though it was a part of her. For a moment he could not tell where the bird stopped and Ekaterina began.

It was at that moment, just before Ekaterina’s body caught fire, that he realized how dangerously wrong he had been about the zone.

Yuriy seeks with trembling hand the cigarettes that are not in his shirt pocket. They don’t let you smoke in these American schools. Is this the freedom he sought when he fled Russia, there at the end of everything when Gorbachev said the Jews could leave and half the population discovered it was Jewish? That was after years in Soviet hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, strange underlit places that did more harm than good to his broken body.

A knock sounds on his door. “Mr. Leschinskaya, your new student is here.”

Another smart-aleck American kid, surely. They come out of these pre-college programs run under the Asian system — they are like robots, clockwork dolls, no music in them.

He used to try telling them about the zone, until one girl had nodded knowingly. “Talk about a head trip. The Soviets, they ran these experiments in the seventies – psychedelics, group hallucinations, just like the CIA. They must have given you some crazy stuff to make you see flaming birds and all that.”

“No,” he had insisted, “there’s no drug that will get you to the zone. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“I bet your old teacher, Ivanovich, was the one who gave you the first dose,” the student had happily continued. “That’s why he disappeared later, when the program was shut down. Your friend, the girl — she must have been dosed then too. What was her name?”

“We were not friends,” he said, and ignored that particular student thereafter. He wants to remember Ekaterina as she was in Volgograd, laughing over vodka and Garanian — not the foolishness that came between them later, and not the way he saw her last, with the bright flames consuming her, leaping over the piano to engulf his own hands and face.

His memory grows hazy after that. He remembers hands pulling him from the flames — small bony hands, Coal Boy of course. He remembers lying face-down in the white ashes of bygone musicians, and realizing what he should have known all along: that just as water has three phases, so does music. The zone is not the final destination; it’s only a resting place. The next phase of music, the truly great phase, comes through fire.

He remembers strange haunting notes sweeping him out of the zone: the Revolutionary Heroes’ March, played on a pan pipe.

He has not seen the zone since that day. For years afterward he couldn’t play, and then after his body congealed rather than healed, he sat huddled in a shawl, feeling as little interest in music as in the rest of life. When he touched the keyboard again, his playing was drab and uninspired. Now he tinkers late at night, searching in the ruins of his favorite pieces for the path that will lead him back through the white place. Then he can join Ekaterina in whatever lies beyond the cleansing fire.

He opens the door and the receptionist from the music office ushers in a young boy – perhaps eight or nine. His brown eyes sparkle at the sight of Yuriy’s nine-foot Steinway grand.

“What a young college student!” exclaims Yuriy.

The receptionist laughs. “He’s in fourth grade. The people at the elementary school seem to think he needs private lessons. Isn’t that right, Sasha?”

The boy shrugs. His attention is riveted by the Steinway.

“I see you like my piano,” Yuriy says.

“I like all pianos.” The boy hops up onto the bench. His free-swinging legs barely brush the pedals. “Can we get started? There’s not much time.”

A smile cracks Yuriy’s scar-twisted cheeks, and he rubs his hands together, trying to work the blood free. He still remembers, somewhere in his deep soul, not the path to the zone, but the feeling of finding it — that preposterous freedom that only music can bring. “First, you must relax your arms and shoulders…”


Forrest Brazeal is an author and former Russian-trained classical pianist. His short stories have appeared in many publications, including Daily Science FictionMysterion, and Diabolical Plots. His first book, The Read Aloud Cloud, is now available from J. Wiley & Sons. You can follow him on Twitter at @forrestbrazeal.

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