The Kingdom of Back Page 3

Six weeks, I’d prepared for this. I felt the numb tingle return to my fingertips, and the shame of the note I’d let slip spilling out onto my cheeks.

I never let notes slip.


* * *

Later that night, after Papa had already retired to his chamber, I sat up in bed with my music notebook in my lap, the pages still open to the measures I’d played earlier in the day. As usual, Woferl lay curled lengthwise at my side. I thought about pushing him away, but instead I watched his chest rise and fall in a gentle rhythm, weighing my mood against the incessant complaints that I’d hear if I shook him out of sleep.

I ran my fingers across the dried ink, replaying my performance in my mind. Finally, I closed it and placed it on my shelf, reaching instead for a round pendant I always kept nearby, its glass surface painted bright blue and black. Faint oil streaks lingered on its surface where my thumbs had rubbed away its glossy sheen.

Mama noted my silence from where she was gathering up a few of Woferl’s toys on the floor. She sighed. “Remember, Nannerl, your brother is only a child,” she said to me. The skin under her eyes was soft and wrinkled, her hair a mixture of mahogany and silver. “He does not know any better.”

“He knows what a performance means.” My eyes went to hers. “He distracted Herr Schachtner today. You saw him.”

Mama smiled in sympathy, her eyes warm with understanding. “Ah, mein Liebling. He means no harm. You played very well today.”

I looked back down at Woferl. His face was flushed, his waves of brown curls in complete disarray. Mama was right, of course, and out of guilt, I reached over to smooth my brother’s hair. He stirred, yawning like a pause between measures, his tongue tiny and pink.

“Can you tell me a story?” he murmured, and pressed himself closer to me. Before I could answer, his breathing evened again into sleep.

It was a request he made almost every day. Sharing stories with Woferl was our constant game—we spun myths of elves and dwarves, chimera that emerged from the dark woods, gnomes guarding the sleeping emperor in the Untersberg Mountain. But we told them to each other in secret, for Papa disapproved of them. At worst, they were stories about the Devil’s creatures, here to torment and tempt us. At best, they were faery-tale nonsense.

Mama, however, indulged us with them. When I was very small, she used to gather me in her arms at night and whisper such stories to me in a hushed voice. After Woferl came along and Papa complained about our mother filling our heads with fables, I became the one to tell them. They soon turned into something that belonged wholly to us.

In this moment, his dreaming voice sounded so small, his question to me so true, that I felt my heart soften, as it always did, to him.

Mama came over to sit with us on the edge of the bed. She glanced at the pendant in my hands that I kept rubbing. It had been my birthday present from her, a trinket acquired when she’d visited our uncle Franz in Augsburg. To give you luck, she’d told me with a kiss on each cheek. Now she looked on as I ran my fingers idly across its smooth surface.

“Do you need good fortune so desperately?” Mama finally asked, taking my hand in hers.

My hand tightened against the pendant. “Yes,” I said.

“And what for, my little love?”

I paused for a moment and turned my eyes up to her. A silver wolf, Papa had once called her, for although my mother was as steady and graceful as the snow, she was also warm, her eyes alight with intelligence for those attentive enough to notice. It was the gaze of a survivor, a woman who had fought through poverty and debt and somehow carried on after the deaths of the five children who Woferl and I had outlived.

My own insecurities embarrassed me. How could I explain to her the feelings that pressed against my chest? My mother, who glided through every moment in her life with serenity and grace. Who seemed to have faced every misfortune without fear.

“Mama,” I finally said. “What are you afraid of?”

She laughed and leaned over to tap my nose. Her voice was full of vibrato, the music of a fine cello. “I am afraid of the cold, little one, because it makes my bones ache. I am afraid when I hear stories of plague and war.” A graveness flickered in her gaze, as it often did when she thought of her childhood. “I am afraid for you and Woferl, as mothers always are.” She raised an eyebrow at me, and I felt myself drawn into her gaze. “And you?”

My hands returned to the pendant, its black eye staring silently back up at me. I wondered if it could see into all the drawers and pockets of my father’s mind, if it could tell me if I was still kept carefully in there. If I played poorly again, perhaps my father would lose interest altogether in teaching me. I thought of how the men had looked away from me after my performance today, how little the Herr seemed to have heard of what I played.

“I am afraid of being forgotten,” I said. The truth emerged fully formed, empowered somehow by being named.

“Forgotten?” She laughed, a rich, throaty sound. “What a fear for a little girl.”

“Someday I won’t be little anymore,” I replied.

Mama sobered at the words of an old soul emerging from her daughter’s lips. “Everyone is forgotten, mein Liebling,” she said gently. “Except the kings and queens.”

And the talented, I added in silence, studying my brother’s dark curls. They were words my father had once said. Only the worthy are made immortal.

With a sigh, Mama leaned toward me and kissed me gently on my cheek. “You will have plenty of years to weigh yourself down with such thoughts. Tonight, love, let yourself sleep.” She turned her back and closed the door behind her, leaving us alone.

I stared at the door that Mama had just stepped through, then turned to look out at the dark city through our window. In that moment, I made a wish.

Help me be worthy. Worthy of praise, of being loved and remembered. Worthy of attention when I bared my heart at the clavier. Worthy enough for my music to linger long after I was gone. Worthy of my father. Make them remember me.

The thought trailed through my mind in a circle. I saw myself seated at the bench again, this time with the Herr never turning away in distraction, my father looking on with pride, the web in the woods unbroken and perfect. I let the image linger so long that when I finally went to sleep, I could still see it imprinted behind my closed eyes.

I thought no one heard my secret prayer, not even God, who seemed to have little interest in the wants of small girls.

But someone was listening.


* * *

That night, I dreamed of a shore lit by twin moons, each bright as a diamond, both suspended low at the water’s edge. Their images were mirrored perfectly against a still ocean. The line of a dark forest curved along the horizon. The shore’s sand was very white, the seashells very blue, and through the curling sea foam walked a boy. He looked like a wild child, clad in nothing more than black bark and silver leaves, twigs entangled in his hair, a flash of pearly white teeth brightening his smile, and although he was too far away for me to make out his features, his eyes glowed, the blue of them reflected against his cheeks. The air around him rippled with a melody so perfect, so unlike anything I’d ever heard, that I woke with my hand outstretched before me, aching to grasp it.

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