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The Sadness of Doctor Ouverez’s Violin

By Malcolm Cumming (S. Africa)

 

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The Sadness of Doctor Ouverez’s Violin

 

One Friday afternoon drops of moisture, as fine as spittle, began to fall from the sky and dotted the ground. Joachim Ouverez did not at first realize that it was raining until he felt a light touch on his cheek. He looked up into the sky, searching with the grey-green eyes that set him apart from the rest of the townsfolk. They were the colour of lichen but as limpid as a marble, atavistically bequeathed to him by one of the varied ancestors that had contributed to the sum of him. Seeing nothing against the powerfully grey sky, a sky as incandescent as a television set in the night, but feeling another touch on the outside of his hand, he looked down and saw on his shoe a spot on the leather than was darker than the remainder of the surface. The spot matched the colour of the earth beneath his boot, and while Joachim took in that insignificant fact a raindrop, heavy and deeply startling, exploded on the nape on his neck.         
                It was a warning, because moments later more drops sped to the surface of the earth, tiny thuds sounding as their juicy bodies met solidity. Joachim thought quickly, and then realized that if his decision required haste then the decision was easy. He looked down at the town that lay against the hillside, towards which he had been walking, and then without a second thought he turned and strode back towards his home. Within seconds the clouds released their loads and the sky turned to water and the world was filled with an old man’s wheezing roar, and Joachim began to run. He ran heavily and awkwardly as he was a man of width and delicacy, and he had not run for many years. The leather satchel at his side bounced up and down, tugging against his stride and it generally hampered his run.
                He did not have far to run and he reached his house within minutes. By that time he was already soaked through, his flesh showing against the white of his cotton shirt. Water dribbled from the sides of his moustache as he fumbled in his pockets for the key to his front door. He burst in and quickly swung the door closed behind him, and panted, the water from his clothes already beginning to form a puddle on the floor of his living room. He flicked his hands to dry them and lifted the strap of the satchel off of his shoulder.
Remarkable, he thought, a grown man afraid of water.
Just then there was a pounding at the door and Joachim flinched in fright.
“Hello? Anyone in there?” called someone from the outside of the door, and Joachim was forced to recover from his fright quickly because the handle of the door turned and the door was pushed violently inward for the second time in minutes. Joachim had no time to expect or guess anything about the nature of his visitor and he stood helpless as a girl with hair splashed across her face and a backpack on her back rushed and bumped her way through his doorway and into shelter.
“Welcome,” he said, in his heavily accented English.
“Oh, shit! Sorry,” she apologized, wide-mouthed. “The rain…the door,” she said, pointing behind her.
“It’s okay. Please, close the door,” he instructed. Joachim’s voice was one of his most powerful assets, more so because of his complete ignorance of its power. It was calm and informative, clean of arrogance, and instilled a sense of reassurance and trust in those who waited for it. People were used to listening to Joachim, and he, without having questioned why, was used to being listened to. He could have charmed a cat with nothing more than the uttering of nonsense, but Joachim was not the kind of man who delighted in uttering nonsense.
The girl closed the door.
“Please, wait here. You can put your bag on the floor somewhere. I’ll be just a moment,” he said and she did as he asked. He returned with two towels, one of which he gave to the girl.
He looked at her face once she had wiped the moisture off of it and, after a thorough rub down, had smoothed back her hair. She was young to his reckoning, with the soft, creamy face of a European. The tip of her nose glowed red like a little bud of sunburn.
“Look, I’m sorry,” she began when she noticed him waiting for her. But he cut her off.
“Please, do not worry. With rain like this, soon fish will swim in the air. Coffee?” he offered, and then without waiting for an answer he disappeared into a small dim kitchen.
When he came back she was sitting in an armchair with the towel wrapped around her shoulders, surveying the contents of his living room with a mixture of intent and boredom. He wondered briefly what the room revealed, other than that he was a bachelor and lived alone, encased, neatly, in his own pursuits and leisure activities.
“You’re a traveller?” he asked as he handed her the cup.
“Yeah,” she said, elongating the word into a luxurious utterance, “Needed to take a break from big-city life. Thought I’d come over to the Americas, backpack around a bit, lie in a hammock, get ta see a bit of the world, yea know?”
“Yes, this has become a popular place for that.” Joachim picked up his satchel from the chair where he’d set it down. He sat down opposite the girl and placed the satchel on his lap. He opened up its flap and began to dig inside. “I too came because I had enough of the city. I was much younger then and I thought at the time that I wanted honesty but in time I began to realize that what I was really looking for was familiarity.” His hand emerged from the satchel holding a series of glass vials. “Familiarity is its own kind of integrity, in a way.” The vials were intact, as he had hoped. Frau Werner would have to die another day. He put them back into the satchel. “Don’t worry,” he told the girl, who was observing him with the beginning of alarm. “I am a doctor. I was on my way to visit a patient when it began to rain.”
“Oh,” said the girl. “I was hiking. This great, bloody downpour started and I couldn’t see a damn thing. Thank God I found this place. I nearly killed myself on that path when it wasn’t raining, so in that…I think I’d have fallen off a cliff for sure.”
“Yes, it can be dangerous, in some parts.” He added. “Where the trail goes through people’s properties, like here, it is usually firm. It is where no-one owns the land that no one takes the time to take care of it.”
“Why’d you live up here?” the girl asked.
“Even familiarity can be a burden.” Joachim said; his mouth and walrus’s moustache stretched and lifted in a valiant smile. But no matter how much warmth, or sadness, his face suggested, the girl could not ignore the piercing ice of his eyes.
“How long do you think it’ll last?” the girl asked of Joachim.
“I wish I were a weatherman so you could know to take my words for lies. There is no way to tell,” he told her disconcerted face. “Usually no longer than an afternoon. You are welcome to stay as long as it lasts. But if you are to stay,” he added, rising and beginning to unbutton his shirt. “You will need clean, dry clothes. Do you have?” he asked.
“Yeah. Got plenty in here.” She patted the pack that rested at her feet.
“Then I’ll show you to the bathroom so you can change your clothes. Unfortunately, it’s not very big.”
“You going to get changed out here then?” she asked, nodding at Joachim’s exposed, fleshy paunch.
Joachim’s hands paused on his buttons and he looked down at his own gut. “Don’t worry; there is a latch on the door.”
“Excellent,” she said, and reached down for her backpack.
“One more thing,” Joachim added. “What is your name?”
“Ellen,” she said.
“Ellen, I’m Joachim.” And he turned and led her to the door of the bathroom.

 

The rain did not stop that day, and on the next day, after conversation petered to a comfortable term, and she could not bring herself to care enough for any of the few English books he had on his shelves to break through the first page, she watched him making flies at the kitchen table.  She watched intently, uncharacteristically holding her voice because she sensed, mostly from his expression and short, quick, careful movements, that the act of creation of a fishing lure was a solemn act for Joachim. After she had watched him finish off two she broke her silence and asked him if she could try. Despite Joachim’s guidance her first attempt was a monster. It was large and misshapen, and she laughed uproariously when she finally finished it up and sat back to appraise her work.
“Ugly as sin, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” he answered. “Sin is just the opposite, appealing to lust but bad for the teeth.” Nevertheless, he placed the behemoth in his fly case, and although Ellen never knew it, years later, when he tried the lure on a whim, he got a bite within seconds, and reflected with some angst on his one-time exposition on the nature of sin.
On the third day the rain was still falling. By then the sound of it had disappeared from the consciousness of those who were held in its frills, and people began to feel their subconscious become progressively more waterlogged.
They had played chess in the morning and because Ellen could not concentrate and instead had stared at the board vacantly, vaguely conscious that she was admiring the gleam and chiaroscuro of the board and the pieces, they gave up in the middle of the second game (the light, she noticed, seemed to have an eternal quality, as if everything she looked at was a photograph). She went back to the couch and pulled the blanket over her. Joachim packed away the board and followed her into the living room. He picked out a book and sat in the armchair to read. After some time Ellen grew bored with inspecting the wall and the ceiling, and the similar blankness of her mind. She looked again at the room’s objects.
“Do you ever play that?” she asked.
Joachim lowered his book. “Play what?”
“That,” she said, pointing at an instrument case that rested against a wall. “What is it anyway? A violin?”
“Yes, it’s a violin.”
She sat up, her hair scrumpled from the pillow.
“So give us a concert then.”
Joachim seemed to consider this, but in fact the only thing he considered was his excuse.
“I have not played for a long time,” he lied.
“So get in some practise.”
He considered some more. His mind became hooded and he gave up his contemplation.
“I can’t play it now.”
“Oh, bullshit! What do you mean you can’t play it now? What else do you have to do?”
“I can’t play it now,” Joachim explained, “because the violin is the only way I know to speak the truth, and at the moment I am trying to avoid doing that.”
Ellen began to laugh. “Taking ourselves a little seriously, are we? Okay,” she insisted, “what’s this scary truth you’re trying to avoid then?”
“I have to kill a woman,” Joachim told her, after a pause. He was calm and ruthless. “She is old and has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. The last time I visited her she had a lucid moment and in it she asked me to kill her. She was scared because she did not know how long she had before she lost herself again, and so she grasped my hand in panic. She pleaded with me and told me that her condition was like a series of re-incarnations, where she was repeatedly granted life but only long enough to fear the end. Because I saw the depth of her terror I promised to do it. Immediately after I made my promise she looked at me as a stranger and snatched her hand away. The problem is,” he finished, “I don’t want to kill this woman. I am not a killer.”
“Oh,” said Ellen, because she could not think of what else to say. She sat back. “Yeah, I don’t think I want to hear that on a violin.”

That night Joachim dreamt that the fish in the lake below them had become so beautiful, with iridescent rainbow stripes running along their sides, that men had come to catch them not to go on dinner plates but to sell so that fashionable ladies could wear them on their hats. He saw Frau Werner at her own funeral, dressed in mourning black with a fish on her hat, watching impassively from the graveside as the coffin was lowered. He woke in his bed with the rain scratching against his mortality and only much later did the sound subside back into a deaf man’s silence.

The next morning Joachim woke Ellen up with a plate of warm breakfast and a cup of coffee. The rain continued to harass the earth.
“I’m going into the town,” he told her. “I’ll take you to the hotel. Dress warmly; I will give a rain jacket for the walk.”
And so it was that two dark figures stepped into the rain that was dreary because of its constancy. One figure had a hump on its back and the other clutched two separate cases under his coat. They walked together through the rain, along the cliff above the invisible lake. They shuffled and occasionally they slipped, sometimes cursing, but finally the ghosts of buildings appeared through the grey of the rain. They moved closer and the ghosts became real and could be touched, and Joachim led Ellen into the foyer of the town’s hotel. Trailing water they approached the desk and Joachim rang the bell.
He rang again and when no-one came he said, “Come on, they must be in the bar.” He followed a short passageway and opened up one side of a double door, and sure enough, the room was occupied. A group of men sat around a table, and a middle-aged woman, beginning to thicken at the hip, her long hair dark and curly and shot with silver, stood behind the bar counter.
Welcome Doctor!” shouted one of the men. “Has the rain delivered you a wife?
Because he spoke in Spanish Ellen understood only the sentiment, not the words. She saw that the speaker was not sitting in a chair but a wheelchair, and that affixed to the handle of the chair was a miniature of the country’s flag.
Hello Colonel,” Joachim addressed the man. “We came for a room.”
Not your wife then?” cracked the Colonel, and the men around the table continued to laugh.
Don’t listen to them, Doctor,” the woman behind the bar scolded. “The rain has made children of them all.”
Another of the men at the table raised his glass. “I disagree Dona. The rain had nothing to do with it.” And the table throbbed with laughter once more.
“Come my girl,” the woman behind the bar called, ignoring the quip, “I’ll show you to a room.” As she passed the table of men she scolded them once more with a flurry of Spanish, causing them more mirth, and Ellen wondered, as she had many times before on her trip, how it could be so obvious that she was a foreigner, and felt shame that her presence forced others to speak her language. She was barely aware that she stood with a backpack on her back.
A fiddle, Doctor!” the man who had raised his glassed called out. “Before you leave, play us a tune! Or has the rain silenced the sadness of your violin?”
The doctor smiled at his friend. “Just the opposite Mauricio. She has become even more taut and keen. So I will save you from suicide and keep her in her case.
The man bowed his head in acquiescence and mock salute. “Just as well then!” he declared. “Perhaps the walk will do her good, and when you return she will have finally aged and become a banjo.”

The doctor wished Ellen well at the bottom of the stairwell.
“What?” she exclaimed. “Oh no you don’t! I’m going up those stairs and dropping off my bag and coming right along with you. Or I’m coming with you right now!”
Joachim observed her and saw that she was devoted to her stance, enough so to feel betrayed if he was not there when she returned.
“Bring your toothbrush,” he told her. “It is possible we may have to stay longer than one day.”
                Ellen nodded, feeling unexpectedly wounded by her triumph, feeling an aftermath of uncertainty and of gratefulness.

The euthanasia of Frau Werner took even longer than the doctor had expected. When he had entered her bedroom she had shrieked at him and thrown a pillow. “You are not my husband!” she had yelled. “My husband is a young man.
You see,” said the nurse, as they heard Frau Werner break into sobs. “It has been like this since the rain started.”
I will wait then,” Joachim told her. “I must be sure.”
Doctor,” said the nurse. “I must show you something.”
She led Joachim and Ellen to the top of the building and paused at the foot of a final flight of stairs that led to a pair of opaque glass doors with whitewashed metal frames. A roar like a muffled waterfall penetrated through the doors.
It’s through there,” the nurse told them slightly giddily as she stepped back. “Be careful. It’s very loud.”
Joachim walked up the stairs and opened the door, and the noise was incredible. The pressure of sound was enough to force a person into a hunch. It came from the rain falling on a glass roof. Joachim stepped through the doors into the conservatory and at first glance did not know if what he saw was repulsive or beautiful, until he realised what it was that he saw. Every surface of the room was covered with resting butterflies.
As Ellen and Joachim stalked through the din, holding their ears, they saw that it was not only butterflies that had taken refuge. They also saw dragonflies and a hummingbird that hovered briefly and then flitted away. The nurse stayed on the landing.
It’s a miracle, don’t you think?” she exclaimed excitedly when they returned. “They must have come through the windows.”
What?” shouted Joachim, temporarily deafened.
A miracle!” shouted the nurse.

For the remainder of the day, and for much of the rest of his visit, Joachim visited the sick woman hourly to inspect for lucidity. However she was trapped in her past, re-living moments that were real only to her, her face crinkling in confusion when even imagined reality withdrew from her and even the past became inaccessible.
The three that were free of dementia spent a lot of time drifting from room to room. They mostly wandered separately, encountering each other as if by chance, even when they sought company. The nurse was long established in a small downstairs bedroom and she was the least itinerant of the three. Ellen was the most, and the doctor, already being the cog of language, became the centre of gravity towards which the women returned to.
It was in the middle of the morning of the next day that Frau Werner also returned to him. Joachim went to check on his patient only to discover Ellen in the room, sitting in a chair and wearing an old dress that she had discovered in a cupboard. Frau Werner was talking to her in German.
“I’m not certain,” said Joachim, “but I think that she believes that you are her daughter.”
Ellen nodded serenely. “Yeah, I think so too. She’s sweet,” she said. “She’s making me miss my nan”.
The old lady said something to Joachim in German, and then as he approached her features grew worried, and then her eyes began to tear as she recognised the doctor.
I am still alive,” she reproached him softly.
So you are sure?” Joachim asked. “This is a death you will not return from.”
But the old woman had become aware of something that had disappeared from the awareness of the others. “What is that noise?” she asked.
Joachim looked out the window. “Rain,” he explained. “It has been raining for many days. If it continues much longer we are soon all sure to drown when the lake swallows the land. ”
Then kill me in the sunshine Doctor. Or else we shall all drown together.”

Ellen found him afterwards in one of the smaller rooms of the old house. He had rolled up his sleeves and the violin case lay open at his feet.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
“Yes.” Joachim agreed.
She knew better than to talk, so she walked over to an open chair and curled into it, her bare feet clinging to its edge. Joachim grasped the neck of the violin and raised it up, all of a sudden seeming like he was poised violence. He adjusted his grip on the bow and began to play.
He played into the heart of silence, and Ellen felt herself roused in a way that she would never know again in her life. Tears sprang to her eyes and an awful confusion took hold of her. She thought, in some way, she had never been happier.
“Would you like me to stay?” she asked him, when he had finished. A tender, plaintive voice that almost did not make its way out of her throat.
“Stay?” he asked, his eyes crisp and stark and deeply vital, sharp with quiet amusement. He observed her sitting in the chair, her legs drawn up under her chin.
“Stay,” she repeated. It was an impatient insistence, or a plea, made while she held his jester’s gaze. She was unsure if it was him or her that refused to look elsewhere. “With you,” she explained. “As a…” Finally she looked down. Searched. “…companion. For a while.” She hated him for making her say the thing aloud. “You are alone.”
“No,” he said. “I am not alone. I have everything, more than I need. But thank you for asking.”

                It was two more days before the rain stopped. None of them thought they would be able to stand it for any longer, but they had thought the same thing many times in the preceding days too. They knew something was happening because it suddenly got quieter, and all their heads picked up. For a second they did not dare to hope, and then they were up, all of them heading directly for the old woman’s room.
                It was only when they got there and realised that the change had not brought Frau Werner back to their world that it occurred to them that they did not have to do it immediately. It was the nurse who said it and both women looked to Joachim for a decision.
                “No,” said Joachim. “It has to be now. It is time.”
                They carried the old woman to the conservatory on a blanket while she shouted at them in panic and batted at Joachim’s head. It was only when they set her down again and she saw the millions of butterflies slowly fanning out their wings that she grew quiet. She allowed Joachim to put a tourniquet on her arm as the nurse worked rapidly to saw open the vials. It was about then that the first butterfly had warmed enough for flight. It flapped and took to the air. Frau Werner watched it as it fluttered past, above their heads, and did not seem to notice as Joachim plunged the needle into her vein. He closed his eyes as he slowly began to depress the plunger, and he opened them to see delight in Frau Werner’s fading eyes as a storm of butterflies filled the air.

 

  • END       -

 

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