Name: Ann Braden
Title: Swimming with Tchaikovsky
Genre: YA Magical Realism
By the time the apartment door clicked shut behind Sally, she was heading down the stairwell. The cello case strapped to her back bumped against her with each step. What did her friends know? She was tough enough to handle a week in Russia. Who cared if that Hallmark ad with the boy and his lost cat always made her reach for a tissue? It was designed to make people cry. She was just doing what she was supposed to.
And she could do that here, too. Just supposed to focus on the competition, right?
At the bottom of the stairs, Sally pushed against the heavy metal door. It didn’t budge. She grit her teeth and tried again. Come on. How about while twisting the door knob? Still nothing. With a slight growl, she reared back and slammed her shoulder against it, only to get the elbow of her fleece caught on something. A deadbolt quietly holding the door in place. Groaning, she turned it, and the door opened.
But Sally didn’t move.
Sprawled across her path was a man, ripe with alcohol and snoring forcefully. He hadn’t made it far before calling it a night considering the bar was next door. He swatted at some imaginary thing on his nose. Just stay focused. Sally took a deep breath and leapt over the man, barely missing the edge of his black leather jacket.
Then she straightened up and headed for the concert hall. Take that, Hallmark.
When she turned onto Nevsky Prospect, the main street of Saint Petersburg, cold wind whipped through her hair. She tugged her scarf up over her chin. Her host mother had given her the scarf moments ago as Sally was walking out the door.
“You must keep your throat warm. Very important.”
Sally had resisted, but not for long. The scarf was beautiful. Small black flowers wove around each other against a gold background.
“It was my great-grandmother’s,” Sally’s host sister Irina had said, nodding to the scarf before she disappeared to get a mop. Their large black poodle had piddled on the floor. All those people standing in the doorway had been too exciting.
Even though the scarf was thin, Sally could feel the heat from it radiating out. She had heard the city wouldn’t turn on the heat until October 1st, still a few days away, so she might just leave it on until then.
Sally stopped to look at her map. The Bolshoi Concert Hall was only seven blocks ahead, and she didn’t want to be too early for her time slot. Extra time would just give her nerves a chance to get out and stretch. As it was, her insides were already churning. When it came to competitions, her stomach always demanded that she feel nauseous and make countless visits to the bathroom.
Sally started walking again but more slowly, letting the waves of people in blacks and grays swell past her on their way to work. The grim color choices didn’t surprise her. Neither did the presence of dead animals serving as coats and hats. What did surprise her was the colors of the buildings. Pink. Blue. Green. Peach. No one had told her the city would be this beautiful.
Just ahead the road rose up into a bridge, and the sidewalk tucked down beneath it where pedestrians disappeared into shadows. The sad notes of a balalaika floated towards Sally, and she followed them under the bridge. Clustered on stools and blankets, selling bits of trinkets, were bundled old women. Their faces poked out from head scarves like the one wrapped around Sally’s neck. She fingered her scarf and then saw the musician.
The man had a weathered face, and his eyes were closed as he plucked the strings. The folk song danced above Sally like a injured bird until it came to rest on her shoulder. The cold wind was gone. The air was now humid and thick. Sweat beaded up on Sally’s upper lip and the back of her neck. A buzzing joined the music, weaving around her, as a stench rose up from the ground, thick like the air, rife with decomposition and decay. The shout from a man behind made her spin around.
“Unless you want to join him, you better keep digging. He was lucky to die in the morning because the tsar wants this done today. Now, move!”
The voice was so close, but where was the man? And who was he shouting at? Looking around, Sally saw only the same grumbling crowd. And the buzzing. Like a mosquito. But it couldn’t be that. It was so cold. At least, it had been. Sweaty hair stuck to the back of Sally’s neck. Desperate to cool down, she tore off the scarf.
It was cold again. The wind was back. The smell was gone.
What was wrong with her? A panic attack? The beginnings of a fever? Sally shook her head. Getting sick this week was the last thing she needed.
She took a deep breath, stuffed the scarf in her pocket, and looked around. The music had stopped, and the man was now tightening the strings on his balalaika. She starting walking again. She shouldn’t have stopped to listen. She needed to stay focused. The Bolshoi Hall was just a few blocks further. But she found herself rubbing the back of her hand against her jeans and looked at it.
She came to an abrupt halt. On the back of her hand, angry and itchy, was a mosquito bite.
By the time Sally arrived at the concert hall, she was determined to ignore whatever that was that had just happened. Now was not the time to be distracted. It’d be three years before the next International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians. This was her only chance because next time, she’d be 18 and ineligible.
After registering, Sally climbed the red carpeted stairs to the warm up area. At the top she found dozens of other cellists sitting amongst the massive white columns of the Grand Hall, many bent over their instruments, tuning and retuning. Every so often a triumphant flurry of notes would burst forth. Eyes squinted, listening for imperfection. Bodies swayed deep in concentration.
After making a trip to the bathroom, Sally found an empty spot under one of the large, glistening chandeliers and unzipped her cello case. She took a deep breath and began her warm up routine. She rosined her bow while imagining herself swimming through the first movement of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto as though it was water. Each transition fluid. Each phrase flowing around her just as Dvorak intended. Another trip to the bathroom. Next, tuning and then scales, first as long fully-shaped notes, then in time with the rhythm at measure 97. Trip to the bathroom. Finally, she bowed her head until her brown curls tumbled forward, and she sat there with her fingers poised over the strings, focusing on the indentation the strings made in the flesh of her finger. Until it was time.
When Sally opened the door into the small room, three sets of eyes stared back at her. No words. Just a nod to the chair. She sat. She exhaled. She began.