You hear the door open as if in dreaming.
Back when you were a conservatory student, you chewed a third of a melatonin tablet every night—to keep yourself from snapping awake before sunup, chest tight, your head still achy with exhaustion. Now, mornings are difficult: your eyelids weighted, sliding; thick grey wool between your temples. Your body drifting in a warm, slow sea.
Evan’s voice. “Rach?”
A groan, from deep inside you. You do not want wakefulness—do not want the heat pulsing from your knuckles, a beacon, a warning; do not want your boyfriend watching, wary, as you massage the meat of your thumb. Too late—slow electric fear coils in your stomach. Your breath draws short as you open your eyes.
“What is it?” Your performer’s voice—clipped, a little haughty, though it still creaks from sleep.
“I brought you this.” He holds out a bright orange bottle. Inside, a neat cluster of capsules, translucent blue. You squeeze your eyes shut, turn your face away.
“I don’t need them.”
A frown in his voice. “Not this again.”
“I really don’t.”
“Make a fist for me?”
Heat through your face, your breath whistling out your nostrils. Evan has been tending to you, day after day, for this entire week you’ve barely gotten out of bed. Checking to see if the god has touched you again.
But he knows, and you know. Xemphon will not restore you. Xemphon has filled you and cast you aside, and in the aftermath there will be no succor.
You clench your fingers. Weak—even you know it. Sweat prickles down your arms, and something like fury. In the afternoons you’re fine. In the afternoons you can pop open water bottles, cut your chicken breast with a fork and knife, no problem. It’s only these first slow hours of morning—and the soreness of ill use, late at night.
Evan extends his hands. “Try again?”
A knot in place of your heart, but you reach. His hands are warm, dry. Soft, save for the calluses on his fingertips from twenty years of playing guitar. You’ve always admired them—your fingers, accustomed to piano keys, would bleed before they hardened that way against wire.
Now, they lack the strength to even hold a chord.
You squeeze again, and the dull ache beneath your ribs spreads up to your throat.
Evan’s expression flickers, a soundless sigh.
“Take the meds, Rach,” he says quietly. Stands up from the bed. “They’ll help.”
“It’s not about the pain,” you snap. As you did yesterday, and the day before, and you despise yourself for this irritated-patient tone, the way it makes you feel like a child, but the unnatural warmth radiating from your fingers is driving spikes of fear through your skull. “They won’t solve the underlying issue.”
Evan leans in—presses his lips to your forehead, and then the tip of your nose.
“I know,” he murmurs: an apology, a confession. His thumb traces a circle across the back of your left hand, and then he is massaging it tendon by tendon, bone by bone, and your breath hitches and your eyes blur and you have to bite the inside of your cheek to keep from breaking. “I’m sorry,” he says, and his voice cracks despite all the times you have told him it is not his fault. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He does not say: There is no cure for being the castoff of a god.
It is only when he has closed the door behind him that you press your hands to your chest and cry.
• • • •
You are a pianist. Were. Are. You don’t know. It’s hard to tell, when you still dream in grand staffs and arpeggios; when you still know every note of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit from memory; when the nickname by which even your professors call you is derived from that singular musician who shared your handspan. And the pain is not so bad—the doctors have not cut you open, yet. You have never shot awake screaming.
But you’re terrified of what it will become.
Evan returns a few minutes later to retrieve the untouched pill bottle, and you wipe your cheeks with the back of your wrist, pretend you don’t see the reciprocal redness of his eyes. You already feel terrible that he’s the one caring for you—though it was he who suggested, on a whim, that the two of you kneel together before the shrine of the god of music; he who convinced you that the god might brush the two of you with a hint of divine artistry ahead of your respective international concerto competitions.
Or even fill you, if you were lucky: choose you as avatars for His beautiful, terrible spirit; gild your performances in immortal perfection. Make you this century’s Bach or Mozart or (true, original) Rachmaninoff.
Instead, here you are—barely able, some days, to hold a pen.
And in the end, it was you who chose to pray.
“You going to shower?” Evan pulls open your closet, neglecting to mention that he has already filled the tub; you heard the spout thundering through the wall. “I threw some of your clothes in the washer with mine.”
Your mouth opens; your protest snags in your throat. It’s not your fault, you want to say again, though you know he will not listen. Xemphon’s last vessel died a decade ago. Since then, a few of the daring souls who knelt before His shrine came away with aced auditions, record deals, unlikely sponsors in high places. But there have been no new-crowned avatars, melodies pouring from fingers or throats—nor supplicants struck down while still kneeling, burnt to ash by holy fire.
The god of music was not supposed to be dangerous, not anymore.
“Okay,” you say.
“Do you need help?” Evan proffers a hand. “I think we’re out of shampoo, but I can grab some at the—”
“It’s fine.” You lurch out of bed, halfway across the room in two steps, and then your knees buckle and a cry falls out of you like a reflex and his shoulder is beneath your arm, bracing you upright—“got it, got it.” Your legs have awakened at last—pain singing through muscle and bone where the god worked the piano pedals—and you should not be shocked at the betrayal by now, but you are every time.
In the shower, rubbing your clenched calves with lavender soap, you close your eyes.
The feeling of Him inside you: Your legs walked from shrine into midnight-empty auditorium; standing on the bright-lit stage, your lungs expanded by breaths not your own. The sweet heady power that filled your mouth as your fingers danced across the keys—Tchaikovsky’s first, and an exultant intensity you would have needed another hundred years to master.
You do not remember the god’s departure, His rejection. Seven minutes, according to Evan, who filmed you from behind the backstage curtains and wept without sound. Seven minutes, the longest He has abided in anyone he did not ultimately want—and then blood pouring out of your fingers, leaking into the cracks between keys, and your memory fails against the rest.
You want to rail against Him, when the nights are hard. Demand He account for His actions, or at least write you performance notes the way your professors did after juries. But the god of music is not a god of answers, and by the time the ambulance pulled up at the concert hall you were drowning in your own vital fluids and perhaps it is best that you do not know.
The bar of soap slips out of your hand and into the tub. It is just a sliver too thin; your thumb seizes up as you attempt to scrape it off the smooth acrylic. Heat rises in your chest again, drowning denial. You can do this. It should be so easy. But when your fingers close around it, there’s a spurt of motion, a quiet plash of toilet water.
You lay your head in your arms, wet hair dripping into your eyes, and breathe out slow.
• • • •
The dream that haunts you, night after night: that holy fire, honeyed sweetness, Tchaikovsky’s chords pulled out of you like light from the beginning of time. Your pulse drumming a new color, a sharper definition of what it means to be alive. And even when you are pressing ice packs to your knuckles, even when the fork clatters out of your hand, you cannot help but think: You would give anything to have it again.
• • • •
A Steinway upright sits in the living room, shoved against the weathered gray sofa. Despite your leave of absence, the conservatory has allowed you to stay in your dorm through the end of the semester, as your rent has already been paid; the piano is borrowed from your professor, who can no longer stand to hear you play.
All your sheet music sits in a pile on the side table, after the time you dropped the lid of the bench and smashed your middle finger. You flex your hands again, try to fist them. Swear under your breath.
It’s not getting better.
A clink of silverware, the warm smell of coffee, and you turn slightly, your legs still sore. Evan is usually out for a gig by the time you start to practice. Leaving you to mourn—though, if you’re honest with yourself, there is not much else you’ve been doing this past week.
Now, though, he raises a bagel. “Want one?”
You position your hands awkwardly to start the first Hanon exercise, wrists cocked to avoid the brunt of the pain. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Rach, all you have left is cereal—”
“Don’t,” you say, curling your fingers.
“Okay, okay, sorry.”
“No, I mean—” Your voice goes thick, unsteady. You cannot look him in the eye. “Please don’t call me that anymore.”
Evan’s spoon clinks against his coffee mug, his silence drawn. Finally he says, “It doesn’t have to mean anything you don’t want it to.”
You choke a laugh, press the heel of your hand to your temple. Once, you woke up to practice at five a.m. and did not rise from the piano bench until noon. Now you’ve barely touched the keys and you’re ready to lie back down.
Your skin still smells like lavender.
“Well,” you say, and then hesitate. “I used to be Blake.”
“Blake,” Evan repeats. Carefully, as if he is speaking a new language. “Sure. Not a problem.”
“Where are you off to today?” you ask, your voice still small.
“Second round audition.” You know he is smiling, though you still cannot bear to look at him. “One of those weird folk musicals. Rumor has it that both the writer and director have been touched by Nihaea.”
You feel a pang. The goddess of theater is as ruthless as Xemphon—and even more fickle, at times, in Her attentions.
“Good luck,” you say, meaning it, and then he waves his guitar case at you and is gone.
You warm up, slow. Hanon, scales, arpeggios, your throat pulling tighter with every ominous pop of wrist. You play the Moonlight Sonata and half-remembered snatches of concerto, rest your head embarrassingly on the pile of sheet music when a run of twelfths wrenches your thumbs into agony. But you cannot bring yourself to stop. There is a fire within you raring to escape, and if you hold it back too long—as you did in the hospital, and during your first couple days back in your room—it fills you up and breaks you on its way out of your fingers, and this morning’s irritated-patient voice will have been as a pale candle to a wildfire.
When your hands are throbbing too much to continue, you shut the fallboard over the keys, find the bagel on a plate on the counter. It is hard and plasticky against your palms, and when you bite down, you taste nothing.
• • • •
You met Evan in your first year at conservatory. Back when you were still growing into your nickname, and he into the name he had chosen for himself. No family to claim him after he cut his hair short, and so he hung around yours during holiday breaks, impressing your parents with his pitch-perfect Cantonese—and when he first kissed you in your childhood bed, you kissed him back and liked it.
The shrine was only a relic, a small marble statue tucked in an alcove off the main concert hall. All but silent, in the last ten years, and this was the best-known conservatory in the nation, and perhaps you were extraordinary in your hometown, but here you were only another name on the concert program. What was the likelihood He would have chosen you?
Thus, your senior year: you and Evan taking a walk outside the auditorium, the night before you were both due to fly out to Europe—the city around you all gleaming skyscrapers and late-night taxis and the low gurgle of the fountain in the park.
I want to try praying, he’d said, his sandaled feet peeking out pale beneath his overlarge sweatpants. Record me in case anything happens. The two of you stepped into the silent concert hall and he knelt on the cold square of marble before the statue, guitar pick cupped in his palms, and then it was your turn and golden fire licked your insides, pure divinity coursing through your veins, and you strode to the nearest piano and played and played until your hands became crimson sheaves.
Afterward, beneath hospital fluorescents: your parents hugging you gingerly goodbye. The doctors assuring them you’d be fine, that all the scans had shown up clear, that even the god-rejected could live long, productive lives—and besides, your parents could not leave the laundromat for too long, as they had your tuition to pay.
But Evan has stayed with you the whole time.
Sometimes you wonder if he is jealous, that you held Xemphon inside you. But then you think of this past week, and you are not so sure.
• • • •
The next morning, the pain is worse.
Perhaps because you heave yourself out of bed to beat Evan to the coffee machine, even as your right knee screams as if bolted through with steel. Or because you slam hip-first against the kitchen counter in the dark—you have learned, over the years, just how sensitive he is to light, the way he will wake at the faintest illumination through the crack beneath his door. Or because guilt is devouring you: for all the ways he has poured out his time and energy this week, and you haven’t done a fucking thing.
When you wrap your hand around the coffee pot, your index finger goes rigid.
You grit your teeth, breathe out through your nose. On the counter, your phone flashlight beams up a starburst, paints the microwave in haunted blues, and you can see the joints hyperextended, the rest of your fingers flexed awkwardly between plastic handle and cool glass.
Your heart hurts. The ground tilts beneath you.
You don’t actually know how to work the coffee machine.
The lights flick on, and you squint against the harsh white. Evan stands in the doorway of his bedroom, hair still rumpled with sleep, and in that moment you love him with a fierceness that steals your breath—his half-lidded eyes, the imprint of his pillowcase still creased on his cheek.
“Are you all right?” he asks.
You pry your fingers off the coffee pot handle with your other hand. A bone-deep ache, as though you’ve sprained something, and fear barrels through you again—that this will be the thing that finally ends you.
“I just wanted to make coffee,” you say, but your voice is thin and far away.
“You don’t even drink it.”
“I could start.”
He looks at you. Shadows beneath his eyes—you’ve only made more trouble for him, woken him with your banging around and whispered curses, but he will not get angry, will not complain. And that’s the worst part—that all this duty and history will build up as a crust beneath his skin. That when you leave this city—and you must, soon, because you’ve lost your only good reason to stay—it will be the only trace of you left for him to remember.
Three steps and he’s holding your hand. Your grip weak, your cheeks flushing as you try to squeeze back, but the warmth of his body anchors you to the ground, and you can almost forget the pain.
Then he reaches over to the cabinet and pulls out the bottle of pills.
“No,” you say, too loud.
“Rach. Blake.” His eyes steady on your face. Clear blue capsules cradled in his hand—that will not heal you, only make you forget you are hurting. “I can’t help you if you don’t want to help yourself.”
“It’s not—help.” Your fists feel like ground beef. Pressure builds in your chest. “When they find a cure, I’ll take as many pills as they like, but I won’t just put a bandage on this while—”
“You know I take meds for depression,” he says quietly.
Your stomach twists. “Gods, that isn’t what I meant at all.”
“No, I know.”
“And yours actually change your brain chemistry. They help solve the problem—”
“Sometimes.” His fingers at your wrist now, kneading so gently you might shatter. “But if whatever’s—happening to your hands—is going to happen anyway, why not hurt a little less? Why not make use of the time you have?”
You push down on each of your knuckles: twang of tendons, low embers of hurt that will radiate back on themselves until your hands melt to god-ruined slag. “Or you might wear yourself out more quickly, if you don’t feel the damage.”
“You don’t know that.”
You swallow, your throat a ring of char. Glance at the pill bottle Evan has placed on the counter.
“They should be taken with food,” he says, helpfully.
“Maybe in a bit.” And you know he sees it in your face, that you cannot believe you and he are the same, but his watch lights up—he’s already running late—and he is not the type to prolong an argument.
And, anyway, you will be here when he returns.
• • • •
That night, he brings his guitar into the living room.
He’s just off his night gig, the smell of city rain rising off his skin, and you are not familiar with most guitars or their makers, but you’ve memorized the way he cradles his Hauser like an infant—its dark swirled panels of rosewood, his hands as sure around the instrument’s neck as yours used to be on the keys. Darkness presses up against the windows, small figures hunched beneath umbrellas and ponchos hurrying below, and all at once you ache to be among them again—breathing in the miasma of wet concrete and subway stations, wolfing down a protein bar on your way to late-night chamber practice.
Evan plucks a couple chords—warm, wavering.
“Want to sing something?”
You shift your legs carefully on the sofa. A faint fizz through your knuckles and knees, the nerves strained but not overtaxed. “What do you mean?”
“Anything you want. A pop song you like, or a musical number.” He pauses. “A hymn.”
You fold your hands into each other. “I’m not angry at Xemphon, you know.”
You shrug. It is not in your nature, to rage at the heavens when it is your own flesh that is failing you. Not in your nature to rage at all, when you can lie so still on your bed you nearly trick yourself into thinking you’ve disappeared.
“So you turn the knife on yourself instead,” Evan says.
“Fine, fine; what do you want to sing?”
He sends a link to your tablet—sheet music for a ballad you might have heard in a cafe, once—and you harmonize to his melody, the caress of his fingers against the strings. Your voice cracks and wavers, as out of use as the rest of you, but between your absolute pitch and two decades of piano lessons, you manage well enough.
“You’re not bad,” Evan says when you’ve finished, as you knew he would. He does not bring the guitar out of his room often, and even less to accompany casual jam sessions.
Heat rises again in your cheeks. “You don’t have to do this.”
“I can’t just substitute—”
“Then what do you want?” His voice edges toward hardness, though you have known him for too long not to sense the hurt underneath. “If there’s any way I can help, just tell me.”
“I want—” You press your hands against your sternum. Veins stand out on your skin, greenish and inflamed; your palms feel like bruises. “I just—I want it back—” and then your throat closes and your eyes flood and he’s here, he’s here, rubbing your shoulders, whispering into your hair, and you can almost believe you will be all right.
• • • •
“Why are you doing this?” you ask, when you manage to speak again. The city has folded into deep night—the streets near empty, the bars down the block dimmed to a neon outline of facade. “You should be meeting new people. Hanging out at clubs.”
His head rests on your shoulder. His shirt is damp with your tears.
“Well,” he says lightly, “maybe I like splitting the rent with you.”
“And you let me stay with you during the school holidays.”
“Yes.” But there’s an old carefulness to his voice, from the wounds his old family left behind, and when you lean your head against his, his lashes flutter like a sigh.
• • • •
You are playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto when the fire lances through your hands.
Every note a knife, your bones turned to hot coals, and you grind your fists against your knees, your breath coming low and ragged. No. No. The rest of the phrase still spirals through you, imaginary woodwinds stretched long against the piano’s tender melody, and you are not ready to end, you are not ready to lose this, you are not ready to be stripped of music while the rest of your body goes on living. You stagger toward the kitchen cabinet and find the pill bottle on the lowest shelf, fluorescent orange and white child-proof lid, and you grip and push and turn and grip and push and turn turn, godsdammit, and your palms chafe and a howl works loose in your throat and then you’re slamming the stupid thing against the counter, your rage boiling over at the unfairness of it all—that you were not enough, or too much, that Xemphon should have passed over you or scorched you to ash and either would have been better than this fucking in-between—and then your grip goes loose and the bottle arcs through the air—a slant of sunlight searing it from within like the touch of a god—
And it ricochets off the side of the Steinway.
Your stomach drops.
You limp toward the living room. Your vision fractured glass, a rush in your ears like an approaching train, and at the sight of the pale gouge in the elegant matte finish you slide back onto the bench and bury your head in your arms and breathe and breathe and breathe.
Your professor’s own instrument. A vessel, despite Xemphon’s repudiation, that your hands might still make sing.
And you have treated it worse than common furniture.
Eventually, the pain dulls, leaves the space between your temples dazed and empty. Just a flare-up, you think with a sort of detached relief, but you know down to your marrow that this will not be the last time. As sunlight shifts infinitesimally through the windows, crowning the room in white, the thought comes to you at last: You cannot continue this way.
You cannot afford to. Even with your financial aid package, you and your parents were stretched to the limit paying for tuition and board, your meager savings from summer gigs sunk into that debt like a drop of blood in a well of ink. Evan has established a semi-regular flow of income—perhaps Xemphon blessed him after all—but you would barely be able to play at a wedding, now, or even teach.
You could go into business, as some of your older classmates have. Rely on dictation software and ergonomic office chairs in an industry that does not care as much for Xemphon’s esteem as for your ability to focus on spreadsheets for long stretches of time. But you poured all of yourself into music, held nothing back. To imagine it leached out of your life hurts nearly as much as your hands did just moments ago.
A flash of orange in your periphery: the pill bottle lying on the carpet, still tightly closed. You bend to pick it up—your right knee trembles, but does not give—and shuffle slowly back to your room.
• • • •
Hours later: a soft knock, the click of the door. Evan and his guitar case, framed in light.
“It’s only six—are you sleeping already?”
You look up. Your raw hands are propped on the comforter, your right leg turned on its side. The pills at your bedside table, glaring, accusatory.
“Just resting,” you say, but his eyes meet yours and you break. “Evan, I scratched the piano, it was getting worse and I couldn’t open the stupid cap and I let go, I accidentally let go and—”
“Slow down,” he says, setting down the guitar case. “What are you saying?”
You thrust out both fists, your skin the color of raw sausage. “I couldn’t open the bottle,” you whisper, and your entire body flushes with mortification. “I tried, and it—it hit the piano—”
“Oh.” His gaze finally catches on the bright orange canister, and he unscrews the cap easily, tips two pills into your open hand. You bite down the spasm that wracks your diaphragm: that his affection for you must manifest at this level of care. That you cannot even make him breakfast without inflicting on yourself some grievous new sprain.
“What about water?” he asks, but you’ve already downed both capsules dry. Your hands and elbows are buzzing, the long bone of your left wrist laced with electricity, and fear crashes over you in waves—that you’re only masking the inevitable, ignoring the decay. That your body will acclimate, refuse numbness, until you’re calling up doctors begging for morphine.
But, as well: Evan kneels beside you like a penitent, his eyes blown wide in the dark.
You trace your thumb along his cheekbone, the arch of softness behind his ear. “Evan.”
The soft roar of the city outside your window; the faint strains of violin you are sure you can hear, even now, from the concert hall down the street. With or without Xemphon, you want to walk those streets with him, if only for a while; you want sunlight on your face, and skyscrapers soaring over your head, and music thundering through your hands. You want to live and live until you can’t anymore—and when the time comes, to depart with grace.
You lever yourself up onto your elbow—the twinge of your spine stopping your breath for a moment, the capsules still half-lodged in your throat.
“Thank you,” you breathe, and then your crooked fingers are tangling in his hair, and his mouth softens on yours, and as the city-smell on his skin envelops you—smog and petrol and streetlights gleaming off asphalt—the god of music hovers at the edge of your vision, a watchful golden flare, and something surges beneath your skin like a melody.
Spread the word!