Chapter two: A heavy trial
In which nightmares become reality.
That night I dream restless dreams of running in the woods.
I’m being followed by someone, something. My boots sinking in the mud, each step harder to take than the last.
The trees are snatching at my dress, I see red everywhere as the lanterns broke and are firing angry red flames up into the darkness.
I’m exhausted, lonely, crying.
I fall down my and hands get instantly sucked down into the cold sticky mud.
No, not my hands! I need my hands!
I pull and pull helplessly.
My fingers painfully frozen, tears sizzling on my face.
And then the thing that follows catches up to me.
Grabs my shoulders.
I wake up with tears in my eyes.
My bedroom looks alien to me for a moment and my hands shoot to my shoulders on reflex.
There’s nothing there.
“It’s just a dream, just a dream, calm down, me.” I whisper to myself, yet it doesn’t seem to work all that much.
It all felt real to me.
“All right, take it easy.” I pull myself out of bed and shuffle barefooted to the vanity table.
I sit down with a sigh and pick up my hairbrush. Pulling my hair apart and combing it down.
With every stroke I feel peace come back to me and I start to hum a little tune, that always calms me down when I’m upset.
The notes from yesterday’s piano session are still fresh in my memory. It’s not the same as playing, but it helps.
Then my brush gets caught on a little tangle in my hair. I yelp in shock and pain.
Then feel my stomach plummets as the song keeps on going without me.
I drop the brush, look back at the window.
There’s an outline behind the curtains, someone small is standing there.
Someone’s outside, trying to look in.
I’m not imagining this.
There’s really someone there!
I run up to the window and snatch at the cotton, almost pulling the fabric off the rings altogether.
But as the sun shines brightly into the room, there’s no one on the other side.
There’s just the rose bushes covered in snow, the marble garden set and white picket wooden fence cutting us off from our neighbours.
I look down at the snow, but there’s nothing there, not even a string of footprints.
I shudder. Close the curtains again, walk to the vanity table and turn the chair to face the window.
Combing the rest of my hair, eyes fixed on the curtains.
The silhouette did not appear again.
“You can’t just wear your usual bun, madam Ditty is a very special guest and you have to look your absolute best.” Aunt Fortuna frets as pulls a box off the wardrobe and sets me down in front of the mirror again.
As she rummages through the box my eyes drift towards the window.
She pulls out a metal comb with a bone handle, then says “Wait here.” Before taking it and leaving the room.
I don’t like the metal comb, it burns my ears. Mum never tried to straighten my hair like that but she’s not around right now.
I don’t know where mum went, not exactly. All I know is that she’s not around to care for me right now.
She’s a pianist, a very good one, I like to think she’s on a very important tour. All the way around the world, playing in all the big music halls.
And then when she’s back, and I’ve become a good pianist, I can come along with her next time.
I look at myself, I don’t look like a star yet.
I pull down the ribbons and starts pulling it into it’s most natural shape. It looks a bit chaotic but I like it, it looks fun.
“All right I have to work really fast, this room is so cold I can barely keep the metal hot.” My aunt explains as she rushes in to door again. She then starts yanking at the hair, searing it into submission.
I sit there for hours while my aunt fusses with partings , hair pieces and pins. All the while I can’t play or hum, all I can do is stare at the window.
And dread the inevitable.
A few hours later, the doorbell tolls menacingly.
I am frustrated, I didn’t get to practice beforehand, I don’t even know this piano and my scalp feels itchy from the straightening.
As aunt Fortuna pushes me to the hallway to greet the woman, Prim is already busy taking her large fur coat.
The two little devils are scurrying at her feet arguing and biting each other in their necks. But their snowy fur stays clean so I guess they don’t draw blood.
I keep my distance though. Small leather leashes tied around their necks should keep them away from my ankles.
Unfortunately the moment she sees my aunt she scoops up the rodents, walks up to me and bows down to meet my height while the little creatures keep squirming in her grasp.
“Look at that Pippy and Poppy it’s little Serenity.” She chirps with enthusiasm “Do you remember me?”
I nod while trying to shuffle backwards a bit to keep those sharp ferret teeth out of my reach while also not seeming rude.
I put on an awkward smile.
“Splendid, it’s been so long since I was last here I expected you to have forgotten all about me.”
Aunt Fortuna smiles widely “She’s a clever girl.”
“Yes, and pretty too, she’s well on her way to become as beautiful as Amora.”
The mention of my mother’s name fills me with intrigue. “You know my mother?” I ask trying to sound as polite as possible.”
“Everyone knows everyone in the music business, especially in Unebre since the scene is far too small to my liking.” She rolls her eyes then says “But never mind that, I came here to listen to little Serenity playing music and the boys took the travel piano along so…” she looks around herself “Where is your biggest table?”
I’ve never seen a travel piano.
It looks nothing like a piano to start with. It’s just a long rectangular wooden box with brass handles that the two large wolf men set down on the dinner table. A wooden lid reveals ivory keys underneath as well as a complicated web of strings, felt and hammers that tangle through the back trying their very best to make each sliver of space pull double duty.
“Wow, that’s quite the contraption.” My aunt remarks.
“Only the best for my friends.” She then pulls a chair away from the table and sits down, pulling a pipe from her pocket and lighting it. She blows out a thick cloud of acrid smoke and watches the instrument expectantly while stroking the snowy creatures.
“Well go on then, Serenity, show madam Ditty.” Aunt Fortuna says while pushing me towards the thing.
I stumble towards it, sit down on the kitchen chair and already things feel off, the chair is too low to reach the keys comfortably and when I turn to adjust it I remember dinner chairs don’t have adjustments. They’re just chairs.
The box is a lot shorter than a regular piano, I only count three octaves, which means I can’t consider half the songs I know.
“Uhhh…what would you like to hear?” I ask uncertainly. I don’t want to pick, I’ll surely pick wrong.
“Oh whatever you’re comfortable with.” The woman replies but the way my aunt looks at me makes it quite clear comfortable is not the same as easy, and going for an easy song would be a very bad thing.
So I go for a folk song which I’m quite sure I can play without errors but has a lot of trills and pretty bits for people to get impressed over.
It’s also not awfully long.
I start with an E chord and build from there.
This piano sounds differently, it’s been tuned that is clear, but the sound is small and tinny, like it’s trying to fight its way out of the box.
The keys are smoother, they feel brand new, they resist my playing, making me play harder than usual.
My arms feel heavier now I have to raise them higher to get to the keys.
It feels uncomfortable.
I can’t find my bubble. My fingers are searching all over this strange machine yet it’s nowhere to be found.
I rush my keys, want to get it over with.
But I can’t mess up.
If I mess up my dream is over.
Don’t slip, don’t slip, don’t slip on these keys that feel like ice.
My breath is all the way up in my throat, I can feel my ears heat up against my scalp.
I can feel the hot comb in my neck.
Ready to snatch at me if I fail.
The eyes that see.
The ears that judge.
I try not to notice the audience, my aunts expecting gaze, the madam’s blank expression, even the wolf men are standing in the door frame, listening.
This doesn’t feel like harmony, this feels like punching the keys into submissions, and I am grateful when the piece finally ends.
There’s silence as all the eyes fall onto madam Ditty. Not even my aunt dares to clap without her approval.
She takes the pipe from her mouth and breathes “You started speeding up after the second verse the piece doesn’t call for that since it should be played in moderato in it’s entirety. You also press the keys too hard which kills their resonance. I also believed you had quite a lot of nerves which is noticeable but given the sudden visit it’s quite understandable. These are all things that can be fixed without issue so~” She starts to clap and suddenly everyone is clapping loudly and my aunt has tears in her eyes from bliss and I just want to scream and shout that all those problems are that stupid piano’s fault and who in their right mind would have me play on a chair that’s too low to begin with.
But I can’t, so I don’t.
I thank the madam for seeing me, she tells me it’s no problem at all and then the wolf men pick up the piano, and walk out with it.
“Well then.” My aunt sighs as she gets up from her chair “With that out of the way, how about some tea?”
“Good idea! I’ll help Prim.” I jump off the chair and rush to the kitchen happy with any excuse to leave that place.
Prim is in the kitchen cutting vegetables for dinner.
“Ah, hello Serenity, how did it go?”
“Aunt Fortuna wants some tea.” I respond, before pulling the stepping stool away from the cupboard and towards the range. “But I’ll do it, you can keep cooking.”
“All right, thank you.”
I take the kettle off the hook and fill it with water, then step onto the stool.
There’s a window above the range.
Outside the window there’s a small person standing by the fountain and looking in.
The kettle smacks down onto the range with a loud clang.
Then a pair of hands appears on my shoulder.
“Is everything all right?” Prim asks concerned, I look back at her with panic still high in my throat. Her hands are resting on my shoulders. I try my best not to cry.
“There’s someone outside.” I tell her “By the fountain.”
“Really? I don’t see anyone.” The maid says as she peers out “Maybe you scared them off?”
I follow her gaze, she’s right. There’s no one there.
“You’re not hurt anywhere are you? No burns, no cuts?”
I look at my hands and arms “No, it’s all good.”
“Good, you can go back to the other then, I’ll finish tea.” She pats my head and just like that I’m dismissed.
So I slink back to the dining room without tea, and wondering what’s following me.