The Piano at the Exhibition

What took place at the exhibition, to this day, still fills me with fear and wonder. It is for this reason that I now confide in you the occurrences of that particular evening, for, something of the like, I had never encountered before. Nor since have I felt such a disturbing mix of insanity and elation. Let me confront this tale by first describing the circumstances in which it all came to be.

In the National Gallery where I work, a rotation of guards takes place every hour. So it was, that I eventually came to watch over the rooms housing the music exhibition. Amongst portraits of famous composers of eras long past, and the various glass casings of aged sheet music, was showcased the centrepiece of the entire exhibition. An ancient grand piano, vestige of a glorious epoch. Even in the silence of the museum, its sanctity was unquestionable. Inside the instrument’s walls had resonated countless musical illustrations of unique states of mind and emotion. The keys, which now smiled a weathered yellow smile, had been caressed and struck in combinations innumerable. For centuries the strings had held spellbound intimate audiences and vast crowds, restoring, in rare moments, a select few to the raw emotional state so unique to humankind. I imagined the great masters of old, alive only in paintings and sheet music such as now adorn these walls, working on their many compositions; giving private concerts; charming lovers and, by extension, the entire world with their meticulous skills and breadth of emotion.

What an honour, what inspiration to be in the presence of such a historical monument. And how unfair for it to be merely showcased, voiceless, and for its true value to be refused us in such a fashion. The yawning silence felt oppressive in its presence. My hands were warm with sheer desire. Not that I fancy myself a master worthy of breaking its imposed vow of silence, but how could one resist such beckoning? How unbecoming it is for an instrument of such repute to be merely displayed for the contemplation of the paying general public. How shallow our understanding of value, of beauty. The old masters would surely laugh at how, through our obsessive and rather distasteful need for conservation, we have brought about the slow death of all passion.

The time then came for me to leave the music exhibition. An hour had passed and I was called upon to patrol the permanent collection. Relying heavily on my sense of duty to overshadow the pain with which I parted from my dear instrument, I moved on. The day dragged on slowly. As did the few visitors of the museum. The hourly rotations will, eventually, allow me to make my way back to the music exhibition, and there my day would end. My last hour, spent in the company of my beloved piano. Thus, lost in dreams of its suppressed magnificence, the last hour approached, and I felt a certain perspiring anticipation in my hands. The day saw me walk through all the other exhibitions, a prisoner in a cell, trading time for money and awaiting release that will never truly come.

In all my restlessness, I nearly missed the hands of the clock as they finally struck the hour. I paced out of the room, sharply greeting the other guards as I went. Crossing the doorway, however, I caught up with myself and became aware of the agitated state I was in. Did I really long for the piano’s company, or was it rather a fear that somehow, under the supervision of another guard, it had come to disappear? I smiled at how irrational I had become as the had day progressed. Nevertheless, as I turned the corner into the room, I felt a strong relief at the sight of the instrument. It had not moved a note. I realized that my desires towards it had only intensified with absence. I took a step back, knowing that, considering my emotional state, I was not to be trusted and could easily betray myself. I finally walked away, to the other rooms of the music exhibition, resigning to, from then on, pay only short visits to the piano room. And it worked, for as I distanced myself, I noticed that my hands grew colder. As long as I keep my visits brief, I thought.

Time dragged past. Outside, night had fallen. My day was coming to an end. I felt cold and hungry. The time came to visit, one last time, the piano room. I made my way, all the while trying to acquire some modicum of mental resolve to help restrain myself from the temptation of breaking the immaculate silence. No visitor had come in the last hour. I turned the corner into the room looking away from the piano. I closed my eyes. Temptation was strong. In my anxiety, I swore I could hear notes resounding softly in the air. Torn between my duty and my sanity, it took a cluster of seconds for me to turn and face the piano. In the intervening time, notes had begun clearly trickling into my ears. Like a light melodious rain.

There, sitting at the piano, was a young man. The music his fingers brought to life soon reverberated through the room. So seamless was his playing, so naturally beautiful, that it seemed the music emerged from within me rather than from the instrument itself. For a second, I was lost. Again, torn between my duty and this moment of wonder, it took me some time to react. At last, with great regret, duty emerged the strongest. I stepped forth, and, as still he did not cease to play, I rested my hand firmly on his shoulder. As this gesture still did not suffice, I pulled the young man away from the piano. It was then that I observed something terribly queer about his hands. It was as though they had melted into the keys. However strange this was to me, however disquieting, the music had to be stopped. Soon the other guards would hear, and I couldn’t risk losing my job. As I went to pull again, this time it was the sight of my own hand that caught my attention. A dive in glacial water would not have shocked me so. I felt instantly nauseous, as I watched my hand melting into the young man’s shoulder. Through all my panic, I recall feeling no pain whatsoever. And for all my frantic struggling, I could not separate myself from him.

The music grew louder then, more… erratic. Seconds from now, someone would come in and witness this whole shameful affair, I thought. I could not let this happen. With my free hand, I grabbed his other shoulder, in an attempt to free myself from this… madness. To no avail. No sooner did I touch him that both my hands had merged with him. I wanted to scream as I was drawn ever closer, consumed by the pianist’s body. My wrists, then my arms were fusing in with his, inch after inch, irreversibly. His limbs soon became my limbs. I was losing control of myself, breathing wildly with great spasms that shook what was left to me of my own body. In the last moments before I was to be fully assimilated, I closed my eyes and drew in a huge breath. I was diving in.

Then, inexplicably, all panic and anxiety left me. I felt relieved of my fears. More, I felt exulted. The most wonderful thing had happened. There I was sitting where the young man had sat, playing what the young man had played. In all respects, I was now the young man, expressing the depths of my passion on the keys of the instrument. In me, there no longer was any trace of shame, nor fear of getting caught, nor even the call of duty. I played beautifully and to my heart’s content. Time elapsed. My shift came to an end. No one, guard or visitor, had come. I finished on my favourite ascending scale, deeply fulfilled. Merry as a child, I shut the small light next to the piano and closed the lid with utmost delicacy and respect, such was my gratitude for having been granted the opportunity to play on the mysterious ageless instrument. Gratitude for the mysterious instrument to have reached out to me in such a way.

As I left the room, I looked back at the portraits on the walls, and, for all their severity, it seemed that the old masters now concealed an ever so subtle air of approval.

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