I often wonder if that piano is still there. What a horrible instrument it was, with that cloying echo, that dull tone. That summer, Henry and I took it apart, the wood cutting tiny nicks into our knuckles, our faces smudged with graphite powder. We found an old tuning slip in it from some twenty years ago and, beside it, a small family of moths, cocooned and waxy-brown. When we swept them out, the air was thick with dust. I brushed my hair at the vanity that night, each stroke coming back flaxen with grief.
The poor darling moths, Henry had said, but I could tell he quite enjoyed killing them, savouring the crush of their tiny eyes against his fingers, the grey funeral bed of towels we laid them on.
I thought about that tuning slip for a while afterwards. The little common room seemed suddenly changed. Like it had become part of a grand history of beautiful aesthetes who gathered there, hazed in sunflowers. There was something of an aesthete in her, I thought, when she sang in our workshops. The streams of light slipped around her like a ballgown, refractions from her necklace darting flame-like against our faces. The Debussy was always the worst ‒ something about French made her mouth look obscene. It was when I wanted to kiss it the most.
Like a cursed portrait she comes to me, her eyes reflecting in every person I curtsy to. I’ve become so polite, so painted on. The sort of girl my father would be proud of. I’ve sliced myself so thin that even the most delicate of palates could swallow me down without trouble. I busy myself with embroidery and make sure all the teacups are full. I’m colourless, cloaked in white drowning-dresses and little noises of acquiescence. She, that wild, witch-wandering girl, comes to me wet-skinned as if just emerging from the lake, algae and all.
I was sitting by Henry in the grass. He was wearing his velvet blazer all bare of its badges, flicking his lighter. Its sound blended with the last of the summer cicadas, a metallic beast’s mourning. I knew he hadn’t smoked for weeks, but he still carried around the lighter, rubbing his thumb over the inscription.
“A shame, really,” I said, in a crude attempt at comfort. As if some concert had been rain-checked. As if it were something as simple as that.
“A shame,” he echoed. Then ‒
“Expelled.” I looked at him, after that word we hadn’t yet dared to say. Through the bitterness, I saw a small, cold comfort. I knew that he was thinking, thank God it was him, not me.
The boy chased Henry along the kōwhai trees, their blooms like bright yellow candles in his hair. Henry eventually tired and, with one last jump, flung himself against the other boy, the two landing in a mess of petals and lips and wanton. They took some time to extricate themselves, like being entwined was their natural state and any distance was an unravelling.
“Such fools, boys,” she said to me. The summer had stained her face with freckles, because she refused to wear the garish hats her mother sent her.
“Like you aren’t?” I asked her, wet with river water, teasing.
“Of course. But we’re more sensible about it. We have to be.”
Then, as if to cleanse herself of such a sentiment, she dove back into the river. I watched how diamonds of watery sun reflected over her back, how her loose hair knotted in the reeds. As she slid down to its very bottom, the eels reared their blind heads, wanting for her flesh. How perfect she looked underwater. A sudden swell filled me as I gazed upon her horrid pink dress on the bank, empty of a body. How strange, that a girl who contained so much could fit into such a small strip of fabric. How could silks and lace but weigh her down?
I almost could have jumped in after her. We could have lived forever among the eels and lilies and dragonflies, story-book dryads with no worries about indecency. But the moment passed, and the boy called to me, running up barefoot.
“I don’t give a damn about the church! Say it with me!” he cried. “Henry won’t. He’s a rotten bore.”
“You know how strict the Dean is about morality,” Henry replied, out of breath. “He always says it’s unnatural. Bringing forth the fires of Hell, all that.”
“Oh, what does he know of Hell? If anyone’s going there, it’ll be him, what with how much he droops into his dull old schoolbooks,” the boy said. “I half think he’s died already, with how much he drones.”
“That’s horrid!” Henry laughed. But the boy cried it again ‒
“I don’t give a damn about Hell!” His voice rang out, its shock hiding in the crooks of the kōwhai trees where black seeds blistered.
Henry tried to protest again, but all he ended up doing was laughing, harder than I’d ever seen before. I must have laughed too ‒ the summer air swept me up ‒ but I know I was thinking, Be careful, boys. Your brazenness scares me.
“What does it mean to you ‒ ‘A kiss that fears no death’?” the old professor asked, his shadow touching her soft outline on the piano. Her eyelashes were wet at their tips as she looked at him, as if she’d just been out in a mist of summer rain. He continued, “Perhaps a love that grants immortality? That transcends death?”
“A pretty idea,” she said. “I’ve always thought it was to continue kissing ‒ no matter the punishment. A love that fears no blow.”
The professor laughed. “Young lovers always aspire to be so tragic.”
“I suppose they do.” And she looked at me, bitingly, until I could sense the little death in her pretty, unassuming eyes.
That night I left my window open ‒ a ghastly night, with the moths beating at the lamps ‒ the Dean had been rapturous at Devotions that night, speaking of fires and torment and Hell ‒ the candles had flickered and sputtered with choked wax ‒ dinner was lukewarm and sour with how long he’d talked ‒ outside, the rain blew sideways ‒ the pōhutukawa trees were old scaly dragons, demons of the night, waving their claws ‒ and I’d left my window open ‒ the rain in my face ‒ the water flooding through my books ‒ all the Mozart and Vivaldi and Handel soaked in rainwater ‒ my window was open ‒ and she came through it ‒ wet ‒ skin cold and trembling ‒ and she whispered to me Did you know did you know did you know there was a girl who drowned a city and her name was Ahez and she drowned the city of Ys haunting it forever dragging men down with her if only we could be so brave so daring and beautiful enough to chase our desires like the boys snag them down into the grass and kiss while petals bloom if only we could evolve from these dull garments into our full powdery-winged glory if we could take our lust and drown it and drown it or fulfil it but out of the two I know which one I would do it’s just up to what you think if you’re brave enough to take a battering from the rain ‒
“But it can’t do anything,” Henry said. “Anger births vengeance. Melancholy births poetry. But what has this brought me? What other feeling has such intensity, but no release?”
He laughed then, a soft chuckle. “It sounds like a riddle.”
“I’m sorry,” was all I could say. I knew sorry would not bring the boy back. I knew sorry would not make the train roll backwards and come back into the station, or make the glaring red stamp un-stick itself to paper, or make the money slip back from the hands of the Dean into the pocket of Henry’s father. Sorry would not do anything.
‒ and I thought of how silly it was that she was saying all of these things ‒ when all she needed to say was I want, and I would have understood ‒ and I thought of Henry, scorched from the lighter the boy bought him ‒ sucking his finger from the burn ‒ how delighted he was when he saw it, so beautiful, in its case ‒ and I thought of how hot two people char when flesh touches flesh ‒ how quickly want becomes wanton becomes crime ‒ and even though each tendon crinkled towards her aching for the cool embrace of this river-water girl ‒ I pulled back I pulled back and said ‒
“No. We’d better not.”
She paused. Pulled herself from me. Sat on the edge of the bed.
“You’re right,” she said, after a while. “We’d better not.”
Henry finally played the whole Chopin Étude in the common room, and I clapped until my hands hurt after he was done. When I stopped, he looked at me in a way I’d never seen before.
“Would you ‒ would you ever, perhaps,” he fumbled, then paused. A fly buzzed lethargically on the window.
“Me,” he said. “Would you ever consider me?”
The fly stilled, stopped.
“Is that what you want?”
He looked down, pressed the squeaky pedal a few times. “Truly, I don’t know what I want anymore. I simply … something normal. Something clean and neat. A nice little house with a parlour, with a piano in it. A pretty wife. We could have that.”
Henry. My bright boy, my best friend, my neighbour. I’d pick apples in an orchard with him forever. I’d play every piano duet, even the absurd ragtime ones. I’d kiss him on the cheek and go swimming with him and tell him my secrets in the early hours of the morning. But he was forever in summer linens to me, tennis outfit stained from romps in the grass, sweat sheen on his brow. Each time I thought of his golden hair, I thought of the yellow fairy-dresses of kōwhai staining it, and how happy he was, rolling about in the leaves. How silent he was at his father’s side, as the train rolled out until it was a tiny black flower seed in the distance.
“We’d better not,” I said.
He nodded, tinkling out one final chord as he thought.
“Yes,” he replied. “I suppose not.”
Cadence Chung is a poet, student, composer and musician from Te-Whanganui-a-Tara, currently studying at the New Zealand School of Music. Her debut poetry book anomalia was published in April 2022 with Tender Press, and her poetry has been published and commissioned widely by Starling, The Spinoff, Landfall, Turbine, takahē and others. She put on her original musical In Blind Faith at BATS Theatre in August 2022, performed her Sapphic lyre compositions at Verb Festival 2022 and composed song cycles to NZ poetry for Cud-Chewing Country, an interdisciplinary concert. She takes her inspiration from dead poets and antique stores.