From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Voice Like a Cello

Anne sat in the closet for a moment, listening to the phone ring before picking it up. She’d always been fond of loud noises, as long as they were real. In the closet, her entire world was nothing but the jangling siren. She guessed who it might be, but the sound grew too insistent, so she picked up the receiver anyway.

Bonjour, Anne? C’est toi?” He sounded close enough to touch instead of across a continent and an ocean.

“I don’t want to speak French, Dad.”

C’est ta langue maternelle.

French was the language of madness, and Oradour was its home. “English is my mother’s language.”

“How is the weather there in Arizona? Enjoying a mild spring? It’s twenty-one degrees with blue skies, isn’t it?”

“Seventy. Yes. It’s always warm here.” Ho, hum, another perfect day. She’d be hating it when summer came around, but Anne didn’t choose to live there for the weather. Here, rattlesnakes and scorpions still blinked, wondering where the people came from. Funny. If she didn’t speak French, she never would have moved to a sleepy little suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix. One had to live in Paris to appreciate how wonderful it was to have a town so new.

“Ah. I forget Fahrenheit. C’est ma faute.

She winced at his French. He’d picked up the accent of Oradour, losing his perfect Parisian.

“I want you to come to France.”

“No.”

“I bought you a ticket. The itinerary is in your email.”

“I won’t go.”

“Maybe this time it will be different,” he said.

“You ever heard the expression, ‘Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me?’”

“Sometimes people need a third chance. Don’t hate me, Anne.” It wasn’t him that she hated, but her father had come to believe that. And then, before she could retort, he dropped his bomb. “I’m getting married.”

“Oh. Congratulations.”

“You’re going to love her, Anne. She’s great. Her name is Violet.”

“Violette?”

“No, Violet. She’s American. Well, half-American. We’ve wanted this for years, but we were waiting for her divorce to become final.”

“When’s the wedding? And where?” Not in Oradour, where partisans still screamed at Nazis long dead? Please God, no.

“The wedding’s not for two weeks, but I want you to come for an extended visit. I rented a beach house, very isolated. Since you don’t like crowds it will be perfect for you.”

“It’s not the crowds I dislike.”

“We can be together as a family. You can meet her son, too. His name is Alain. He just turned twenty.”

“There’s twelve years between him and me. I hardly think we’ll have anything in common.” A thought occurred to her. None of her business, but it was the way of children and parents to hurt one another casually. “How old is she?”

“What? Well, she’s thirty-eight, not that it makes any difference.”

But it did, of course.

“Anne?” Her father asked. In the darkness, he sounded older than sixty. “Will you come?”

She missed him. France drove her mad, Oradour drove her mad, not him. She loved him, though he didn’t understand her. “I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t think too long, the flight is in three days.” He disconnected. Score one for Dad. Don’t give her enough time to think, just enough time to cancel her appointments. Two weeks. Two weeks of living in a horror movie. But if the wedding were on the beach, away from civilization?

“Nowhere in Europe is away from civilization,” she said out loud. But he was getting married. He wanted her there. Two weeks of madness, two weeks of torment. But he was her father, and all she had left.

The windchime voice asked with a ring like a question. Unlike the dead voices, the musical ones spoke without words. She translated automatically.

“Yes, my father wants me to visit him.”

Happy, thought the windchime voice. Not happy?

“I miss him, but I’m afraid of France, of Oradour especially.” It wasn’t just there, of course. Los Angeles had been bad too. Thank God she didn’t speak Spanish.

Courage, thought the timpani voice. Family is good, family needs you. She thought of the timpani voice as male, and had grown fond of him.

Anne pulled open the drawer, touched the soft cardigan her mother once wore. It wouldn’t be too warm for that in France. Under the sweater, a glint of gold caught her eye. Anne hooked the medallion, dangled it in front of her eyes. Trust a Catholic woman to believe in ghosts. She kissed it, and tossed it in the suitcase. Mama had believed enough to sacrifice her savings and emigrate here, all for the sake of her poor, insane, eight-year-old daughter. Mama had found a place on a map, a city that wouldn’t exist without air conditioning and irrigation. A place with no history.

That first day in Arizona, Anne had stepped off the plane, walked out into the terminal and listened. She had heard nothing but silence, beautiful gray silence. After all that torment, those endless nightmares, this new and empty city had felt like a panacea.

Memories? wondered the pipes. You miss other woman?

Anne tossed some aromatherapy oil in her suitcase. The scents sometimes allowed her to ignore the sounds.

“You haven’t seen her, have you?” Anne asked. “Mama died here, I would like to be able to hear her.”

No, the orchestra concurred.

“Or the one I fell in love with, the one with the voice like a cello?”

They hadn’t heard that voice either.

These musical voices weren’t tied to language, nor to place, and they cared nothing for themselves. They were like dogs, almost, or children: curious and friendly, harmless. They hadn’t learned to hate, unlike those who had once lived. The dead in Oradour would have killed her if they could. They knew nothing but their own torment. They wanted to destroy her in their solidarity of horror. Instead, they drove her mad.

But here there had been no massacres. What few Maricopa Indians passed on didn’t scream for vengeance in any language she knew. Those few who went died singly, peacefully, and didn’t stick around long. More to the point, they didn’t harass her, didn’t scream their fury and pain.

She heard the musical voices here in the desert, like the ice cream truck you don’t hear until the baby stops crying. The voice like a cello had comforted her, encouraged her. One dear friend, when she desperately needed one. One beloved friend, who kept her sane so she could take care of things while mama worked her second job.

The cello voice ceased over twenty years ago. After that she made friends in school, friends who didn’t know she was crazy. Anne had gotten a job at the bank, had met a man, got engaged. The other musical voices were there for her when the relationship went sour. They were kind, nonjudgmental. When Mama died, the voices comforted her and congratulated her.

“Might be kind of nice if the dead could hear me too. Then I could make a living as a medium.”

Anne walked to the computer to bring up the itinerary. Purchased a month earlier, emailed that day. Score two for you, Dad. “I’m going to miss you guys.”

We will be with you, the music suggested.

“Yes, but I won’t be able to hear you over the din of the screaming dead.” And where was her layover? Argh. Not La Guardia. New York was almost as bad as Paris. Old, large cities, with lots of history. Layer upon layer of death and tragedy. “I’d better pack some sleeping pills.”

On the way to the airport, a feeling grew in her gut, like eating too many onions; a sour, angry unhappiness. She stayed awake as much as she could on the flight, enjoying the silence, prelude to the nightmare which awaited her across the ocean. Timpani followed her, wished her well, then drifted off. A voice like a harp asked her question after question, but Anne didn’t want to speak out loud in public, and the harp voice left as well. Once she had thought them angels. Dad thought that devils tormented her. He had taken her to several churches, to no avail. Thank God he hated psychiatrists, or she might have been drugged into imbecility.

By the time the plane landed, Anne was running on determination and coffee. She staggered through disembarkation. The voices in Paris were as intense as ever. Endless tiny tragedies layered upon themselves, whispering a background of pain. It would be worse in Paris proper. Anne prayed they could avoid the city.

“Anne!” Her father ran towards her, embraced her, spat of a flurry of French which simultaneously nettled and befuddled her, then detached to introduce his fiancée. “And this is Violet.”

“So nice to meet you,” Violet said, or something like it. She looked younger than Anne; thirty-eight but botoxed into gamine splendor. What could two people so distant in age have in common? Love, forever, soul-mate. She used to believe simple things like that wouldn’t matter, but loss had made her cynical.

“Anne? Did you hear what she said?”

“What? Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.” Couldn’t hear her own father over the screaming. Someone got shot in this airport, and though she didn’t understand his language, his rage came through clearly. He sounded like he was standing in front of her.

“Violet was saying that Alain wants to go to Arizona State University. That’s where you live, isn’t it? Near there?”

“About half an hour away.”

“Well then maybe he can live with you. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Living with a stranger? It would be horrible. “Let’s talk about it later.”

They stumbled through the airport, then into an underground parking lot full of Renaults and Peugeots. A woman screamed in an archaic French dialect, wailing for her lost child, and her lost arm, and her husband murdered by soldiers. “It’s over,” Anne wanted to scream back, “You’re dead, get over it!” This must have been a village, centuries before. There wasn’t a village in Europe that hadn’t hosted a tragedy. Sometimes she thought there wasn’t even a square patch of ground on this continent that hadn’t seen a human death.

Violet patted her on the arm, like a mother. Anne let her, though Violet would have had to have been pregnant at age six to be her mother. “Poor thing, you look exhausted. Jet lag?”

“I’ll sleep in the car. Is it a long drive?” Anne searched for her sleeping pills. She should have been tired enough to sleep without them. Maybe in a moving car it would be all right. The dead were tied to place, unlike the music voices.

“Two hours.”

Two hours turned into three, and Anne managed to sleep. She woke when the car stopped, the cessation of motion as jarring as the sudden silence. Her father and Violet opened the doors to the sound of rushing waves. A shepherd had died here, but he spoke something unlike the French she knew, and his voice had grown faint. Anne sat up and peered out the windshield as her father and Violet got out. The beach house had the weathered tacky look of cheap and fashionable forty years earlier, cheap and poorly renovated recently.

And suddenly a crush of dead voices rushed at her like a tidal wave. They spoke English: British English, Scottish accents, and the twang of American. She pressed her hands over her ears, but it didn’t help. She could still hear their anger, their rage and disbelief. Anne shook her head violently from side to side. Normandy. He had rented a beach house in Normandy.

Dad and Violet shut the car doors into silence, though the voices still screamed inside her head. A young man waved to them from the porch of the beach house, idly kicking sand out of his Tevas. Did they wear Tevas in France? It seemed too casual, too desert. Her father and Violet took hands as they walked across the sand and beach grass. The wind whipped their hair, but the expensive car sealed out all noise except that of the dead. Violet stumbled, Dad reached out to help her. Anne panted, willing herself to bear the deafening anger of long dead soldiers.

Alain said something to his mother, then nodded and walked back towards the car. Anne watched him approach, wondering how much cordiality she’d be able to muster. She should smile and say something nice, but the soldiers were begging her for water, for bandages, for a merciful bullet. Alain looked older than his twenty years, wearing well-used blue jeans and a dark green hooded sweatshirt. He was smiling now, and she wanted to smile back, but she wouldn’t be able to hide her madness from him. She couldn’t hear, couldn’t think with this agony of war in her head. How had she forgotten? The dead wouldn’t let her sleep, wouldn’t give her enough time to masquerade as a sane woman, wouldn’t let her find a polite way of telling Alain that women who heard strange voices couldn’t have houseguests.

He opened the door and sat in the back seat, then shut it hard, aided by the wind. Anne’s ears popped with the pressure, and popped again with the sudden silence as he kissed her gently on the cheek. He made it quiet. His touch made the dead voices stop.

“I’m Alain,” he said, with a voice like a cello.

Catherine Cheek is a graduate of Clarion San Diego, class of 2007. She has published short fiction and essays, and her novels are represented by Kate Schaefer Testerman of KT Literary. She has a BA in Linguistics, a brown belt in karate, and a garden that doesn’t yield nearly as much as she would like. When not writing, she throws pots, paints, binds books, and plays with molten glass. She keeps an artblog on www.catherinecheek.com and a webcomic about chickens at www.coopdegrace.com.

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