String Quartet is Quartet version 5
“The perfect woman,” a childish concept. Yet, this could be translated to the world of adults. I have wondered, what makes the perfect wife? Marriage is proper and ennobling. That is why an individual must be married before they become clergy. (Though my minister has told me that the real reason is that nothing humbles a man quite like a family. Interesting fellow.) Marriage is a divine institute, and intimacy the highest way of knowing. The perfect wife, then, according to divine law, is the one to whom you are married. There is no other criterion.
My wife would rise in the middle of the night on some nights, the long nights, and wander to the doorway. Sometimes, she would linger long enough for me to stir. Other times, she exited with the silent speed cultivated in her past life. I would feel her movement during the lighter portions of my sleep. There is a period after midnight when the body enters a lighter phase, and as the nights grow longer in the dark season, so does this phase. The priestly poets say that some awaken during this time to pray or meditate, and based on her abrupt increase in skill, I can only assume she had been waking since summer.
Once, I woke up and saw her creep out of the room. I sat up and followed. We ambled past the two rooms belonging to the children, and then through the kitchen. Where was she going, I wondered. We moved past the front door, along a white papered hallway. The other end of the house. When I saw that she held the key, I finally understood. We weren’t going outside, we were going into the addition, the room kept locked away.
She grabbed the door handle and then tried to pull away suddenly. Her skin stuck to the iced metal. She sucked in a breath. “You do it, Anz.”
I wasn’t sure if she had noticed me, but I should have known. Even as we were reaching our thirties, Alexandre Dirge Siren’s instincts remained sharp. I took the key and opened the door. The annex was nearly as chilly as outside.
“Anz, it’s cold.” I wasn’t sure if she was trying to be cute, but then she added, “fix it.”
I frowned, but closed the door behind us and moved to the small stove in the corner. The moon filtered in through the high windows and choice skylights. This was, despite its purpose, built to be private. Even though it was around the size of a bedroom, most of the space was filled with wires. Tonight, they glinted in the celestial light. Ice-coated metal strings shimmered from wall to wall, the moon illuminating the strings that cut across the at various angles and heights. I filled the stove with wood shavings and lit it. “How long—”
“These strings are too cold to play. I am going to be out of tune.”
I stocked the wood stove and barred the door. “Not for long.”
“I know.” She swam through the wires skilfully, like a spideress in her web. Once in place, she struck a string. It hit a sharp note. “Oh yes, this is…just awful.”
This room was added for the sole purpose of housing her instrument. I had thought that Alexandre, like other middle-class women, would want a room to read novels and play cards in. To have tea with other women. Perhaps park a harpsichord in the corner to entertain guests. I should have known her better. This was no guest room, it could barely fit our family.
A note rang out.
“Oh listen!” She giggled. “I knew it! The tuning, la! I have been uptuned, it sounds like a full step down.” She struck an E minor chord.
“Full step up, not down,” I said. “Actually, step and a half. You’re playing sharp.”
“Oh. I think you’re right Anselm.” She strummed a power chord. “They’re sticking to my fingers like the door.”
We invested in this project a couple of years ago. The result was this room-sized instrument, laid out like a series of harps. It wound dangerously from wall to wall. Some came across at a level plane, and others were strung diagonally across the pilot’s left or right. When Alexandre stepped in, the piano wire lay before her in large sets of twenty-four and thirty-six, and small sets of eight, exactly like a harp. We needed at least a full octave per set, so one could start play at any location and find the notes they needed. Most of the metal hung comfortably around Alexandre’s waist, while sharps and flats hovered by her head and down by her thighs.
“Wait, if these are in sharp, I could probably play something…heavy.”
“Aren’t you afraid you might wake them up?”
“No…” She slid her playing gloves on and began to strum aggressively. Four D-sharps, followed by E-sharp and A-sharp simultaneously. “We’re on an exterior wall, remember?”
As she played, repeating E sharp notes until she hit A flat, the heat of the room began to affect the strings. Her notes got lower in pitch until the instrument was creaked back into tune.
Alexandre used to play bare-fingered, but she decided—and I didn’t argue—that she would shield them. Let them get soft for once in her life. I took her bid and stitched gloves from a thin, tough material. She is right to use them, now that we have a homestead and some peace.
It was only half a decade ago that she and I travelled from empire to kingdom hiring our accolades and swords to the nearest ruler. Mercenary work and the royal hire weren’t the first time she’d had to do battle either. Alexandre’s fighting skill came from a time in her life that was darker, when she was the maiden Alexandre Dirge. I could see that past in her as she played. It seemed to me that, to some extent, she to let herself fall to violent situations. However, once she had the favour of Her Serenity the King, I think she finally had the excuse she needed to turn down her old line of work and do something else with her talents.
Alexandre started playing a tune that was new to me, sombre notes she must have practiced previous nights. She hammered higher notes with her right hand, holding a melody with the piano wire. Lower notes she strummed on bass strings with her left hand. She swept across sets of strings arranged specifically for playing these sorts of chords one-handed. The chords kept rhythm, sounding like an aged guitar underneath the melody. Occasionally, Alex would find time between longer sustained chords to visit other strings with her left hand, harmonizing the melody. I listened, experiencing her emotions sympathetically.
“What inspired this?” I called quietly.
I could feel the sorrowed chords and the melancholy that sang out in the song. It was a work unfinished, and I could tell she’d only practiced it a few times. And as I listened, I began to also watch, paying close attention especially to the rhythm and incomplete harmonies. As she played on, I stood. I strode around the instrument and slid in beside her. She, taking my cue, began repeating a portion of her song so that I could find my footing and test the strings. I started moving my hands along with hers, and apart from hers. I found an accompanying rhythm to match hers with my left hand. My right briefly tangled with hers as I took over the harmony, building on what she had struggled to do with only two hands. Once we had found our places between each other inside the instrument, she stopped repeating the song and we continued it instead. Alexandre’s right hand danced delicately across the wires and I improvised along. The strings soothed a grief I didn’t know I had, perhaps one that wasn’t mine at all. Alexandre was smiling and shedding silent tears. The two of us completed the instrument; two people, playing four parts. This was it, this is the String Quartet.
“Remember that you said…” She began to hum.
Alexandre shifted and her left hand played a new pulsing rhythm as we moved into the last section of the song. We reached the climax, and I adapted as smoothly as I could. It was a little faster now, and the music was less intricate and more intense. I felt the heat of the room and the heat of our motions. When I looked over to Alexandre, I saw that her tears had been washed away by perspiration. She pushed into the pulse of the song, over and over until she struck a set of notes three times in succession, and moved her hands to block me from playing further.
“This is where it stops,” she breathed.
I looked around, surrounded by the Quartet. The stove was running low. “This room will get cold again. It might be good to return before dawn.”
“Yes,” she murmured. We climbed out and she wiped her flushed face. She took a step into me, and grabbed my back. “I am overcome. Take us.”
I took the hand that stopped our playing. “This is where it starts.”
“My my…come! Take me away this place, take me to my home Anselm.” Alexandre laughed, and her black teeth shone in the moonlight. She ran to the door.
“As you wish.” Leaving the smoldering stove, I locked the door behind us.
From The Journal of Anselm Siren, Eight day, 07/004. Approved for release by both Sirens.
(And Anslem Siren)