I – Allegretto
Shostakovich envies his bust of Beethoven. Alabaster-white like the snow in Leningrad before the university students piss on it. Deaf, dumb, blind. A dull brain, no longer blaring with concertos and symphonies and operas like a goddamned telephone in the depths of night. A black, rotten telephone with a cradle-fist and a Tokarev for a receiver. No tempo hammering in his skull like a pair of heavy, thick boots kicking in the door.
And there are no fingers to tempt an act of composition. No tongue to dictate.
The bust shows only an image, a fragment of time.
He wonders if Beethoven really looked like that at all.
Image is everything.
* * *
II – Moderato (poco allegretto)
He writes so very quickly, matching the speed of the blitzkrieging Wehrmacht before it stalled outside the city.
“Everything will be all right,” Beethoven whispers, and Shostakovich’s tempo falters, sunk like a ship on the Lagoda.
Shostakovich remembers the first time Beethoven had made such a promise—when the papers proclaimed, “Muddle Instead of Music.” His hands shaking as he shelved the Fourth Symphony. Relatives, friends, even Marshall Tuchachevskii pouring into an endless era.
He doesn’t want to know everything will be all right. It is Russia. Perhaps something will be all right. Not everything.
How often have they sat together, Shostakovich with fingers tied together like his guts when he reads another denunciation. They shelved the Fourth Symphony together, Shostakovich nearly as white as Beethoven, and Beethoven remained when Shostakovich penned the Fifth, encouraging him to the end.
It has been night for so long, but now he has hope. Again.
* * *
III – Adagio
The mortars join the chorus of school children laughing outside the apartment, and he inhales fire day and night.
The third movement clings to his desk, as does another paper. Traveling orders to Moscow.
It reminds him of the bust on the shelf. He wants to swallow fire and drown in ice while the city burns itself out, while dead children camp outside of his apartment (he worries only of peaked caps and ghosts rapping on his door these days,) whispering to him that they can no longer skate but he can yet compose. He glances at Beethoven; unspoken meaning between hollow, white eyes and his own.
He wonders if he looks so pale, so empty.
He carries the bust in his arms, pressing it tightly against his chest, careful that the eyes gaze forward.
How can Beethoven understand if he cannot see? How can he understand if Beethoven cannot?
The fireman brigade’s cap settles on the top rim of his spectacles. Before him, long, leather coats flap like ravens beating their wings in irritation. The Neva flows beyond them, slow-rolling towards palace and vokzal and the besieged.
He can smell the oil on their leather, on their weapons. Their fists gloved, the drift of vomit and vodka and rot caught in the wind, hands on hips, close to what they cannot hide. Concealment undone by smell, by stature, by the menace of nostrils widening, snorting and sniffing like wild dogs.
He conceals nothing. The white bust hangs heavy in his arms, dead weight cradled by forearms and fingers designed to perform, not to carry. He strides until a cigarette butt hits his boot top.
“Comrade. There is no fire on the river.” The cigarette rolls to the ice and hisses into darkness. “Of all places. The one place in the city where there is no fire.” He flicks Shostakovich’s hat with his index finger and laughs.
“No surrender, no retreat, comrade.”
The ravens’ wings flap in dull sun on the horizon. One of them lights another cigarette, and Shostakovich wants to do the same, but Beethoven weighs far too heavy in his pale hands.
“But the ice,” Shostakovich mumbles, feverishly licking his chapped, chilled lips. He can see the ice quite clearly, even though the river has not frozen. “I need to walk. To compose, comrades.” His fireman’s cap feels like a razor edging into his scalp; he wants to rip it off his head, throw it into the river, encase it in a winter’s current of ice.
And no sooner does the one sensation pass than he is drawn to another. He wishes to swallow the bust.
The ravens mock at first, snorting antipathy, and Shostakovich glides forward, pretending he is seven and his mother is holding his hand. It is just the same, he thinks, except for the communists and the Nazis and the war and the depredation. And the piano. Just the same, really.
He skates across water that freezes upon foot fall, his shuffles smooth and soft, and then turns, not more than twenty feet from the wild dog-birds. Beethoven slides from his grasp and says, “Eat then, Dmitrii Dmitrievich.”
Beethoven’s pale countenance barely shines in muted sunlight that will soon diminish further in these lean, waning days. It reminds Shostakovich of St. Isaac’s dome under artillery light, and then the bust drops. First, through surface water, the ice now gone, and then swaying side to side, drifting until it reaches a shelf of sediment, a doll with an empty eye socket buried to the legs, and an anchor weighed down by rust. Shostakovich follows until they reach the bottom. The bust begins to disintegrate into light, hot, burning energy, and Shostakovich swallows Beethoven-as-flames, taking in and filtering great gulps of water like an pelagic whale. As he swallows, the sweetest music fills him, cleansing his bloodstream from the cacophony and madness above, and Shostakovich watches notes fall upon the green glass of the Neva, falling, falling, falling, and rising once more, until they join a lazy current and begin to flow southward.
At some point, the ravens swoop upon him, eager for a meal of their own.
* * *
IV – Allegro non troppo
In the dark of December, Shostakovich awakens in Kuibyshev, heavy and tired, as if he has gorged himself for months. His head is fat and thick like a well-fed summer tick. His chest aches longingly; God, it hurts so, he tells himself as dull, throbbing light patterns flood his vision. He lights a cigarette and smokes furiously until his fingers squeeze embers.
He clenches the fourth movement in his other hand and only wonders for a moment if it would have been different if he had remained in Leningrad, gulping water long after the surface froze.
After he sets up the first apartment, sometimes they ask, “Where’s Beethoven, Dmitrii Dmitrievich?” They always smile, and he supposes they find the idea of a German composer in a Russian’s home ironic during this war.
That a Russian devoured a German, Shostakovich imagines, they would find far more ironic and vaguely patriotic, but he can only answer, “Leningrad.”