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Pianissimo Chelsea Hanna Cohen

When we hear they are coming, we bury our music in the backyard, deep underneath the roots of the sycamore tree where the forbidden music cannot break through the earth. We know the punishment for carrying music inside of us. We know that if we are caught with music, we will be sent away to have it erased from our bodies and our minds until we are limp, compliant, useless; we will forfeit all we own, for who knows if it will be there when we return, and there will be no one to protect it for us. We do not wish to face this. We do not wish to lose what keeps us alive. This is what we think as we dig our fingers into the ground and drain the slurs, shake out the staccatos, force our chords through our toes and into the hidden soil.

We go back inside and wait. When we hear the three knocks on the door, equally spaced, we know it is them and we know it is time. We check our pinkies for any missed sixteenth notes, any codas attached to the insides of our ribs, any arpeggios snaking up our spines, and, finding nothing, we open the door.

They tell us they have received a report from a neighbor. The neighbor has heard our walls leaking concertos; they have seen quarter notes imprinted in our windows; they have tasted the hint of a sonata in the air. Is it true? they ask, eyes blank, mouths impassive.

It is not, we tell them.

If we search this place, we will find no crescendos, no diminuendos, no sforzandos?

You will not, we tell them.

We shall see, they say, and take out their long fingers. We sit on the couch while they run those fingers over every surface, drill them into every nook and cranny, pull our books from the shelves, and leave their prints on every page. They leave our photos on the floor and our furniture pulled six inches from the wall. We imagine what will happen to our possessions if we are taken away, who will dig through them and claim them for their own. We sit. We breathe. We wait.

The search is a fermata that lasts forever; when at last it cuts off, they step back into the center of the room, brush off their hands, fold their arms. We have not found anything, they say, and we smile. We relax.

This is our downfall.

From somewhere within one of us, a grace note flutters down, almost undetectable. We feel it slip down skin, come to rest between the cushions. We will them not to have seen it, not to have heard it, but they can sense the change in our demeanor. They know what we have concealed.

Please stand up, they tell us.

We do.

They slide their fingers into the couch and pull out the wriggling grace note.

Tell us what we have here, they say.

We do not.

Please come with us, they say.

We do.

We are taken to their prisons, thrown in their cells with padded walls to ensure everything is kept out except silence. We endure our sentence by keeping the music alive inside, singing nocturnes and humming requiems inside our brains, trying as hard as we can to transmit them to one another. We can feel one another’s presence in the walls, sense the hints of what lies beyond, but we cannot break through.

The days turn to weeks, turn to months, turn to years. We scratch songs into the walls to track time, but we lose even this after a while. What we have left seeps from our brains and into the dirt, and as the years pass, the music fades. The difference between major and minor dissipates; the semitones blur together until they are indistinguishable.

We can sense it, the moment the last bit of us flees. We thought we had emptied ourselves in our backyard, but we did not know what that word truly meant until now. And it is then that they come and open our doors. They inspect us to make sure we are no longer threats, and we are too weak to resist. Satisfied, they send us on our way.

We stumble through the streets, delirious. We pass people we do not recognize and people who recognize us, or if not us exactly, the air of people who have been returned. This happened to my son, one whispers to us. It will come back to you. We do not believe him.

We walk through places that once were etched into the walls of our brains but no longer are. We make our way toward what once was home, and it is not until we are halfway there that we remember it might no longer be ours. We press on regardless. We do not know where else to go.

When we get to our home, we can see that it is in fact no longer ours. Children’s toys litter the lawn. The walls are a different color. The atmosphere is colder, and the joy that once filled the air is gone. We peer into the backyard and see the children playing under trees. “Listen,” we whisper, and if we are quiet and the children are quiet, we can hear the undertones of a prelude in the breeze wafting from the bright green leaves dangling heavy with fruit. The music we buried, fully grown. It is not until we feel the cool wind on our cheeks that we realize we are crying.

And later that night, when the children have gone to bed and no one is watching, we will jump the fence, climb the trees, bury our faces in their bark and inhale their songs. We will sink our teeth into the fruit of our minds. And we will welcome the music back into our bones.

© Chelsea Hanna Cohen

Meet the Author

Chelsea Hanna Cohen

Chelsea Hanna Cohen

Chelsea Hanna Cohen lives in Brooklyn, works in publishing, and plays piano when she isn’t writing. She is an alumna of the 2018 Tin House Summer Workshop and is the managing editor of Syntax & Salt. Her work has been previously been published in Split Lip Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, and freeze frame fiction, among others. You can find her on Twitter @chelseahannac.

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