Today when I got a bowl of raisin bran for breakfast I thought I heard drums. But it was just the cabinet door swinging shut behind me.
On windy days the air whistles around the house. If I close my eyes it almost sounds like a low panpipe, or a saxophone note—mocking me.
One night I woke up because I thought I heard Tommy singing. But my eyes opened on the dark and I knew it must have been a dream.
I have no music left.
Kelly says I sound far too old for my age, using long strung together sentences and calling things mine that aren’t. But I think fourteen years is enough to sour a person.
We live in a big, rich house with mahogany woodwork and swirling mosaic floors. It soaks in the silence like a sponge. I wonder if the house wouldn’t drain the music of its life, if it ever returned.
Sometimes when I’m crying in the garden I can hear, just for a moment, a melancholy half-screech of violin. It could just as soon be a door hinge.
I only ever cry in the garden. The house is no place for tears.
There was a time when the kitchen was my favorite place. Kelly and I did our homework there. Tommy was the cook. Well, he was really our cook, housekeeper, gardener and caretaker, and had been since I was four. Tommy liked to say the house was his and that we were his little girls. Kelly and I didn’t mind. Our parents travel all year. We were a family of sorts, just the three of us, together in the kitchen.
I loved the omelets Tommy made for Kelly and I. He would fry green pepper, onion, cilantro, and ham for mine. Kelly liked hers with just plain cheese. The sound of his pots and pans and the clank of the spatula flipping eggs were like bells and drums. I would start clapping in time and laughing at Tommy drumming the pots. Kelly would look up from her homework spread on the kitchen table and shake her head. Then Tommy would sing in his low, creamy voice. I would join in, and then Kelly too, all our voices melding and rising together. The stainless steel and sanitized tile dissolved into grainy red sand and the pots became bongo drums. Tommy was no longer a chef, but a warrior dancing around the fire. Kelly and I had strong, sun black skin and wore kangas.
I remember the night that changed it all. The night Kelly went on a date with Jake.
“Selah,” Tommy said, his forehead crinkled, “go on to bed.” We stood in the atrium by the front door.
“No.” I dug my toes into the shag rug and lifted my chin in challenge.
“Do you know where Kelly is?” Tommy asked, yanking his coat off the hook by the front door and putting his arms through the sleeves.
“Why are you so keen on having me go to sleep?” I crossed my arms.
“I should have refused to let her go out with that rake.” Tommy zipped up his coat vengefully.
“Okay, I’ll go to bed.” I said
“Oh no you don’t,” Tommy stopped me, “stay here.”
“You just told me to go!” Tommy bent over a little to look in my face and took a gentle hold of my arm.
“Selah, what if Kelly is in trouble?” Tommy’s mouth dropped into a severe frown.
“Why should I tell? You’re sending me off like some little kid!”
“It’s past time when you normally go to bed.” Tommy said.
“I know! But Kelly should have been back three hours ago.”
“That’s why I want to go out and find her. I’m afraid Jake might…” Tommy sighed, his shoulders caved in towards his chest. That scared me, to see him look like a crumpled egg shell.
“She said something about the abandoned mill on River Street.”
Tommy’s head snapped up and the warrior-drums were bright as fear in his eyes.
“Shit.” He said. Then he turned and ran out the front door and into the dark.
I stood there with the slammed door reverberating in my chest. I had never heard Tommy swear before.
I went to bed and I lay in the dark. The silence crept in from outside, slinking heavy through the windowsills. It muffled everything.
But that last word Tommy had said repeated itself over and over and over in my brain. Each time it repeated the cellos and the base and piano in minor key jumbled and snapped out of tune. The keys wandered, spun off and slammed against the walls of my room. They were half crazed bees, shrill, splatting dying.
A human cry broke above my head, jolted me upright. In a moment I was at the head of the stairs. Tommy’s back disappeared into the kitchen.
I ran down the stairs, peered through the jarred kitchen door and froze. Kelly was folded up in Tommy’s arms. Cries broke out of her cock-jawed throat, splintered with shuddering breaths. She trembled and choked, as if pain might throttle her, and buried her head in Tommy’s shoulder.
My stomach tripped, cowered, and knotted itself in sick confusion. I recoiled, stepped quickly once and twice away. The staircase yawned up into lonely darkness and Kelly’s screams hammered the backs of my ears. Tommy’s voice broke in, earthy, deep.
The only two people in the world I care about were in that kitchen.
I took a deep gasp of air, spun back, pushed through the kitchen door. A chorus of squealing, shrieking violins crashed about my ears. A half sob escaped between my lips and I ran to the shelves and grabbed the pots and pans and skillets and threw them on the floor, I swept them off the shelves and yanked them off the wall hooks. They bounced metallically, clanked, jarred. Just for a moment the cacophony sounded of drums and cymbals, the floor turned to red sand and the African sun warmed my skin.
Kelly fainted. One last metal lid vibrated on the hard floor. Silence.
I looked at Tommy across the island countertop and he met my gaze. His eyes were dull and sad…limp as Kelly’s body in his arms.
My parents flew all the way from Iceland when they found out what Jake had done to Kelly. They stayed for one week.
The brokenness inside of Kelly opened into a rift. It fractured further and further apart, yawning into a dark abyss. It sucked life and joy and music out of her, out of the air and the house.
Tommy shrunk into a wizened man. Dark circles grew under his eyes. He didn’t go into the kitchen anymore. We all ate raisin bran for breakfast.
One day I saw him leaning against the balustrade like he was dead. “I shouldn’t have let her go…” he whispered.
I had Tommy fired. I’d already lost him anyway—just like Kelly.
It wasn’t hard to convince my parents. They were in the midst of packing for Morocco. A phone call every night would do until they found a replacement.
Even the house has changed. I hate it. The silence eats my insides, puts up walls, coats everything with fur.
Kelly has been swallowed up. She sleeps during the day or listlessly fingers the corner of her quilt.
I found her on the stairs once, just sitting halfway up, like hope had packed up and left. I put my arms around her and helped her up the stairs back to her room.
She doesn’t sleep at night. She lies stiff in her bed and stares at the ceiling, or she walks up and down the hallway.
I spend a lot of time in the garden now. The wind slides against my skin and the sun shifts through the cold air. I pretend that everything is like it used to be. Oh, I know it was never utopia, but at least Tommy was still here with light in his eyes, at least I still had Kelly.
If I stand right here by the willow tree and look out past the wall I can hear Tommy’s voice. “Selah.” He looks at me with deep sad eyes.
“Tommy” I say, “I had to, you know.”
“No, there’s no know.”
“Well,” I lean up against the willow tree and cross my arms, “then just trust me.”
“Trust and love are different things.”
“I couldn’t stand for you and Kelly to end up the same way!”
Tommy’s voice is gone. There. Back to wind and sunshine and silence.
“I figured if you left you’d have a chance at being happy.” I whisper.
Suddenly Tommy is back, angry. “I coulda SUNG.”
“Sung?” I hit the willow and blood speckles my knuckles, “Why don’t you sing now?”
“It’s your place.”
“I…don’t…have…any…music!” I turn and walk into the house and slam the door. Of course Tommy couldn’t understand. He couldn’t see how we were being destroyed; first Kelly, now me. He wouldn’t have saved himself. I had to do it for him. I had to.
“It’s your place.” Tommy had said. As if the house was mine like the kitchen had been his.
I don’t want it to be.
I walk upstairs and into Kelly’s room. I don’t come in here much. We don’t talk much. Kelly is lying in bed stroking the corner of the quilt.
“Kelly, I decided I don’t like the house. I don’t have the music. You can have it.” She looks up at me with those dead, dull eyes. “After all, you’re the oldest.”
“I used to love this house,” she says quietly.
“I only ever loved the kitchen.”
A wispy smile plays around Kelly’s lips, as if she’s trying to remember how. “I’ve been waiting for you to come.”
“So, now it’s your place.” I turn towards the door.
“Selah.” She says my name like a harmony, with a lilt. I pause. She says, “You loved the kitchen for its music.” I put my hand on the door knob and turn it.
I hear the sheets rustle as Kelly moves. “Every room in this house used to come alive like that kitchen…before Mom and Dad started traveling.” I turn my head and meet her keen gaze. She is sitting up, a peculiar light in her eyes.
“Write a book about it.” I say. Kelly sighs and lies back down. She looks up at the ceiling.
I walk out into the hall. One step, two, three—I stop. That was the real Kelly, for a moment, the Kelly I care about. I stand there frozen: one foot stepping forward, one leaning back.
I don’t have any music. The only two people I care about are in that kitchen. Fourteen years is enough to sour a person. I had Tommy fired. Selah, what if Kelly is in trouble? Every room in this house used to come alive like that kitchen. I coulda SUNG.
I turn and go back into Kelly’s room. She is still lying stiff and staring at the ceiling.
I walk over and sit on the edge of her bed. The mattress sinks down under my weight. I reach over and finger the edge of the quilt.
“Kelly.” I whisper. “Kelly, tell me about this room.”
Her eyeballs shift as she looks at me. They turn sharp, glisten. A tear wobbles on the rim, slides silvery across her cheek and into her ear.
Her song starts really low, so I can barely hear it. A breeze, as if at the call of her voice, filters into the room, fingers our hair. The words are deep and mellow, swaying.
Grass sprouts through the seams of the quilt, rolling off into hills on the floor. Kelly is sitting up now, mouth opened in a loud wordless song. I grab her hand as we are jolted up to stand in the grass. Mountains break on a horizon of stark morning blue. Something snaps like a suitcase clasp. A flute joins Kelly’s voice, echoing a lonely cry. The cry becomes louder, shrill, painful. I gasp as the land gives way, opens into great chasms.
I try to call to Kelly, but my voice is drowned out. We are falling into the chasms, still clasping each other’s hands. We tumble through the air, rocks pelt our skin. Water is coming up fast, I scream, tense for the impact. Kelly’s eyes are bright now, I see her lips move and a new sound breaks in…it is a blast of wind, the shofar’s call. The air pulsates and I feel mist on my face.
Prisms cast their light in the vapor. I choke out a note and we hit the water of a lake.
We spin, engulfed in the liquid and soft, blurred tones. I hear a sound like Tommy’s voice. Bubbles rush through the muted place, like bees. Kelly is laughing.
I gasp in water, cough, groan. The music changes, a cold undertone solidifies the lake into rock-smooth ground. Kelly is weak, she leans on my arm. Tears slide down her face.
I put my arm around her and let a sound slide between my lips. It is a please, a thank you, an ‘I’m sorry’. Kelly grips my arm harder and straightens her back.
Now we are both singing together. Our voices reach out towards one another, melding and flowing. We watch the sky become solid once more. Bits of patchwork quilt show through the rock.
I am sitting on the edge of Kelly’s bed, holding her hand. There are prisms in her hair.
I look into Kelly’s face, her face clear as music notes. “Kelly, we SUNG!”
Kelly laughs. “Listen.”
The house feels different, clearer, and freer—like it’s all filled up and burbling over. There is softness in the air, not muffled or stifling. It is the sound of music, just beyond hearing, waiting to burst forth into a thousand different songs.