Joseph had studied piano since he was old enough to reach the keys. He could read sheet music before he could read letters and spent more hours playing the piano than he had spent in the sun.
His father had been strict. He demanded perfection from his son, to make use of the opportunity he had been denied. His father often told him about his own dreams of playing music and of the unexpected pregnancy and marriage that required he turn to harsher work. Work that had ruined his hands through repetition and strain.
He had never managed to play to the level his father demanded. He endured the repercussions and tried to focus on playing well enough to avoid his father’s ire.
Joseph was almost a grown man when he spent his first night out with friends. His father was away for a funeral and his mother encouraged him to take one night for himself.
Against his wishes, Joseph’s friends took him to a bar that played live music. When he saw the piano on stage, lit by a warm light from above, he knew the evening would be filled with his father’s voice, pointing out every mistake. Joseph drank his first round quickly, hoping to calm his nerves.
The woman that walked onto the stage was not what he had expected. She wore a hoodie and long skirt, and walked with her head bent down, as though hiding her face. She had such little presence that he thought she was setting up. Even as she sat on the stool, Joseph expected her to test the microphone and leave the stage to someone with more grandeur. But as she began to play, every conversation in the bar ended. Orders went unfinished and every tap was stopped, however much the glass had been filled.
Joseph did not know the song the woman played. He had never heard music of its kind before. Whatever it was, she played it perfectly. Every note hung in the air until the moment she was done with it and it was snatched back, woven back into a melody that would never leave him.
When it ended, Joseph could not have said how long the song had gone on for. It could not have been longer than the thundering applause from the room. Applauding, he looked around at the other patrons, who likewise looked to their friends for confirmation about what they had heard. The only person who was still was an old drunk in the corner, who looked like he had passed out at his table.
Joseph left his friends immediately. He went to the back of the building, hoping that the woman would not leave through the front. She came through the door shortly, still with her hood up and her slumped posture.
Joseph begged her to teach him how to play like her. It was the only way to finally quiet his father. She peered up at him, dark eyes ringed with shadows from sleepless nights. She stared at him for such a long time that Joseph had to will himself to continue to meet her gaze. After she had apparently seen enough, she simply said,
“You can have my talent. But you have to pay the cost for it”
Joseph offered any amount, but she shook her head.
“I’ve made enough money for several lifetimes. I need to be rid of it. I cannot stop playing… I dreamed of playing beautiful music since I was a child and I can’t stop now. As long as I can play, I cannot stop myself”
The woman gripped Joseph’s hands, much more strongly than he thought possible. She wormed her fingers through his, turning his wrists so her palms met his. He felt his fingers crack and the skin being pulled much too tight.
“The cost is not for you. It is for the listeners. You will play perfectly, but one person in every audience will die”
Joseph was trying to pull his hands back now, panicking and only half-listening. She abruptly let go, and Joseph found himself staring at his hands. They were not his. The familiar mole on the back of his right hand was gone. The nails were unkempt and the calluses were in the wrong places.
The woman pulled her hood further over her face and turned to leave. As she did, Joseph could swear he saw a mole on the back of her right hand.
Joseph continued practising, per his father’s schedule. His mother did not comment on his insistence on using headphones with the old keyboard, rather than the piano in the living room. He spent hours in a trance, listening to his own music.
When his father returned, Joseph made certain of the next time his mother would be out. Alone with his father, the dutiful son asked him to observe his latest composition. He father sat beside the piano as Joseph played for an audience of one.
After the last note had rung out, Joseph quietly closed the piano lid. He would not need to play again. It had never been for him.