Sheila Kohler

The light was pure, white, blinding. I was giddy with the brightness, the height, the magnitude of the mountains. You walked without looking back, oblivious of the wild flowers at your feet: columbines, blue bells, and white irises like candles, scintillant in the early morning light. White with foam, churning, the water resounded down to the gorge beside us, so loud I could hardly hear you speak. Without stopping to look back, you shouted, “We are almost at the top.”

But we were not. You kept climbing steadily, easily with long strides. I watched you going through the light and shade under the stunted spruce, springing forward silently, in your dusty, thick-soled boots. Your ivory calves gleamed, catching the light, as slender and smooth as a girl’s. You had tied your shirt around your hips and your broad back was bare, the silky shoulder bones exposed. Your pale hair seemed to melt into the sunlight.

My head was spinning, my mouth dry. I could smell the pine. The path flattened out for a while, and I caught my breath, looking down into the valley with its smooth green fields, and below that the orderly village, all washed by the same clear mountain light, all clean, fresh, and harmonious.

I remember how you stopped to wait for me in a pool of shade. You looked back at me with a half-smile, laughing with your eyes. I was struck by the mysterious contrasts in your face: your eyes a lush violet, the lashes long and black, the skin pale except for the bold, purple bruise beneath your chin which you carried like a blazon, the insignia of your profession. You took my hand and helped me over the roots of a tree. 

The top of the mountain was cool and shaded by big boulders. There were no flowers up there, no water, and even the skeletal trees seemed to cling precariously to the thin soil. There was no sound, no bird song, not even the buzzing of a fly. 

Only the light was the same: dazzling.

You sat down in the shade on the ground, slippery and scented with pine needles. I sat between your legs. I leaned back against your chest. 
You gave me cool water to drink from your water bottle, pouring it into my open hands. I splashed it on my hot face, my neck.

You said, “Look,” and stretched out your hand, and the shadow of your arm fell before me like a long wing. All the world was before us: the maroon mountains, the green valley, the sparkling river, the vast sky, the light and shadows. All of this had existed for centuries, the sea had receded, the mountains had surged forth, the flowers had bloomed, so that this instant could occur for me. The view was endless, the possibilities infinite. I left myself behind, escaped my suffering flesh. I plunged and plummeted. I was the white water shining below us, the glimmering aspen bark, the silver leaves beating like my heart. I was the light on your face. As you held me in your arms and told me that we could meet that evening, I was winged, perched to fly free.

YOU NEVER SAID when we would meet again, but every day I waited for you to summon me. I lingered in the dark hall of the house my parents rented every summer, hovering around the telephone as though it were a volcano about to explode. At whatever hour you called, I would slip out of the narrow house, with its stained glass windows. I would bicycle up the path through the pines, the wind on my face. I was always bicycling, the sun coming and going in my eyes, alternately plunged into shadow and blinded by the glare, going breathlessly along the dust path that led into the village and the hotel where you stayed. I feared nothing, not my father’s wrath, nor the musicians’ gossip, not even your wife. You had told me your wife was not coming up there until the end of the music festival. You never spoke of love. You did not talk very much to me, but now and then your face would turn bright, your lovely eyes would seem opaque, as though curtained, and you would look into the distance and speak of music, the voice of the violin. I remember your hands, the fingers blunt-tipped, strong—peasant hands.

ON THE MORNING we climbed to the top of the mountain you told me you had to go to a rehearsal that afternoon. “What a bore. I have to rehearse with that baby, Kyata,” you said, shrugging your shoulders with disdain. I had heard she was a child prodigy—not even as old as I was, a plump Korean with flat, shiny cheeks who played the piano magnificently. You were going to play Brahms, a sonata for violin and piano. I asked to accompany you. You said it was time to go, you had to change your clothes. 

In your small hotel room the Venetian blinds were shut. I could hear the river rushing beneath your window. A mourning dove called. You opened the slats, and the sunlight lay like a golden ladder on your bed. I stood at your dresser; staring at the misty photo of your home. I still remember the name of the village in southern Germany where you lived. A factory near there, you said, made the famous aspirin. The photo was old and slightly yellow. It was taken on a gray day, or the photographer had deliberately created an impression of mystery. The turreted house was dimly seen through the iron grill of the gate. Weeping willows lined the river. A small pale girl stood alone at the end of a white driveway in a Dirndl. I suppose she must have been your little girl, though you had never mentioned her, and I never asked.

I examined your collection of rocks. I was admiring a luminous pink rock with concentric blue lines, when you came and stood beside me. You said it was I who was beautiful, and we smiled at one another in the mirror. I was dazzled by the glow in my cheeks which rose from my neck like a promise. I climbed avidly into your bed.

THIS IS THE  way I remember it. You strode through the streets blindly in the glare of light, without looking right or left. Musicians were the gods in that town, were they not? You expected the cars to wait for you, and they did. People recognized you, and whispered to one another as you hurried along the street with the green lawns on one side and expensive shops on the other. The shadows were very black, the contrast between light and shadow clearly drawn. We rushed through the marble garden. As usual you walked fast with long strides, in silence, your head beating back and forth like a metronome, already concentrating on the music.

We were late. You asked the boy with the programs at the entrance to the tent if Kyata were waiting. “The whole world is waiting for you,” he said, smiling at me with complicity. He had a pleasant voice, a friendly freckled face. He wore very short shorts and a daisy in his buttonhole.

The vast tent was almost filled, but they had reserved a few seats up front for your guests. The light was yellow, filtered through the giant canvas. Faded flowers from the night before, gladioli and chrysanthemums, fanned in vases at the edge of the platform. Kyata wore a salmon pink dress with a full skirt, which made her look plumper than ever and ridiculous. I wondered who had advised the dress. Her flat, baby face shone with sweat. She sat at the piano nervously wiping her hands on her full skirt. She half stood up awkwardly when you climbed quickly up the steps to the stage. Her face was fulvous as you bowed ceremoniously over her hand. She made a false start, immediately became flustered, apologized profusely. The conductor said something kind about first performances, and she began again. Then I forgot about everything except the music.

I opened my eyes when I realized the man beside me was giggling. A dog had wandered down one of the aisles and was sitting as though listening almost at your feet. I watched Kyata, who kept glancing nervously at the dog and then at you from the corner of her eyes, her plump fingers moving up and down the keys all the while with amazing expertise. Orange paper wrappers came floating through the air like confetti. The wind picked up and blew over some chairs with a clatter. The dog barked and had to be removed. Everyone laughed. Kyata kept playing valiantly and looking up at you. For an instant I thought she would burst into tears. You played, your eyes shut, concentrating, oblivious, your lithe body twisting back and forth with the music. You played the way you made love, with your whole body. You bowed, your pale hair falling over your eyes. The applause was rapturous. 

WE CLIMBED THE  road back to your hotel. You took my arm and squeezed it tightly against your ribs. You gave me a tender, sidewards glance. You seemed very happy. We sat down in the marble garden in the sun, and you tilted your chin toward the light. Your face looked the way flowers sometimes do, lit from within. The boy who had greeted us at the tent walked by in his shorts and waved to us, and I waved back. You ignored him and muttered, “Another aspiring violinist. There are far too many of them up here.”

I wanted to talk about the music, Kyata, to ask you if someone so young could express the emotion inherent in great music. “When I was fifteen, . . .” I began.

You said you had forgotten the Brahms score in the tent. “What an idiot!” you said, clapping your hand to your brow. I offered to go back for it. You said, as though I were your child, “Run along, dear, and meet me at the hotel.”

IN THE TENT  I found Kyata sitting alone at the piano, her head bowed, her soft shoulders slumped, her hands on the keys. She lifted her head when she saw me, wiped her face. Her eyes were puffy and red, and her ridiculous salmon satin dress stained with sweat. 

“He forgot his score,” I told her. She got up and helped me look for it. She trumpeted into a gray handkerchief and gushed, “He’s so wonderful, amazing. Only the Germans are that good. No one plays with such precision, such controlled emotion. He’s so dedicated to his work, so disciplined. He has such amazing faultless technique, so. . . .” She sobbed. 

I wanted to tell her how well she had played, to give her a hug, even to kiss her plump, pimply cheek. Instead I put my arm around her shoulder and said what Mother would say to me that summer when she saw me weeping over you, “You shouldn’t waste such a lovely day. Get out into the sunshine.” Kyata wiped her puffy eyes with the soiled handkerchief and nodded miserably. “Maybe I’ll walk around a while,” she said. 

“Do you want me to come with you?” I asked.

She said, “I’ll be all right, don’t worry. You’d better take him his score.”

I looked at the faded gladioli, the paper wrappers on the floor, a fly buzzing around her head. “I have to run,” I said, clutching your score to my breast.

I  RAN ALONG the street. The sun seemed even brighter, the lines clearer. The street looked cleaner than ever. I suddenly noticed the people surging down the street like a bright, shining river. How happy they looked, all strolling in the sunshine, packages in hand, dressed in cheerful, clean colors; they were tanned, healthy, young. Even the well-brushed dogs shone, frisking unleashed down the street. The merchandise in the shop windows sparkled: jewelry glittered, cloth shimmered; a straw hat with a bright red rose caught my eye. I went past a bakery and smelled the fresh bread. My reflection gleamed for a moment in a shop window: my legs long and tanned, my white shorts crisp, my pink and white striped shirt as smooth as ice cream. And when I looked up, the clouds above me seemed pure, close enough to pluck, like white chrysanthemums in the sky. Everything seemed washed clean by Kyata’s tears.

YOU WERE WAITING  for me in the cavernous lobby of the Victorian hotel. You came toward me immediately, as I emerged from the revolving door. You clasped my hands and whispered that something had happened. There was a message from your wife. She was arriving that night. I remember the concierge standing behind the polished wooden desk, holding a heavy key in one hand, the maroon velvet chairs, a beam of sunlight penetrating the heavy curtains, catching motes of dust. The sunlight slid from your arm as you moved to put it around my shoulders, to steady me. You murmured, “It’s all right. It makes no difference, darling. . . .” and ushered me into the old fashioned elevator with the paneled walls. As we climbed you said you could not leave me. You were going to tell your wife. She would have to give you a divorce. Then we would be able to. . . .

For a long moment I looked directly into your violet eyes. They seemed suddenly limpid, as though a film had dropped from them. I could see straight through them, through your high white forehead. I could see what you were thinking. I remembered your telling me what an expert your wife was at packing, how well she ironed your shirts, put up jam. I wondered if you were going to ask me to pack your suitcase, to sort out your clothes. The elevator went on climbing and climbing, so slowly, in silence. 

“It’s going to be all right, I’m telling you. We will be together,” you said. Your breath was hot on my face, and I drew back.

I said nothing. What could I say?

“We will be together,” you repeated, taking my hands, leaning close to me, so that I noticed what I had never seen, how gray your skin looked, as gray as the little girl’s in the misty photograph. The bruise beneath your chin looked larger, livid. He must be forty, over forty, I thought. 

“You have nothing to say to me?” you said.

I withdrew my hands, turned my head away. How could I say that I had realized in that instant that I did not love you, that I did not love anyone as yet? Could I say that I wanted to live alone, to see the world through my own burning eyes, that I wanted to receive the world on my own terms?

It was very cool and dead quiet in the long carpeted corridor. There was a bowl of artificial flowers on a highly polished table. A maid in a white cap was pushing a trolley piled high with clean towels. I said, “Here’s your score. You know, when I fetched it, Kyata was weeping. She seemed very upset.”

You said, “Thank you very much. You’d better go now,” but I stood in the corridor and watched your tense back, as you struggled miserably and ineffectually with the key in the dim light.

I WANDERED IDLY into the marble garden and sat down on one of the white stones, the sun lingering sweetly on my legs. The shadows fell obliquely across the grass. I watched an enormous orange sun dip behind the maroon mountains. The light was amber. I saw Kyata walk by in the distance, her plump shoulders stooped, her head bowed. She waved enthusiastically, and I waved back. I shut my eyes. I was almost asleep, when I felt someone’s shadow fall on me. For a moment I thought it was you. I feared you had followed me, that you had come to recriminate, to beg, but it was not you, but that boy. I didn’t know his name then, and you were only to learn it much later. Do you remember the violin student, the one who had told us the whole world was waiting for you? He still had the daisy in his buttonhole. His wide smile lit up his freckled face.