Thursday, June 8, 2017

B♭-E♭-D-B♭, by Anne Johnson


Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk visits Brno in 1906 and travels in time with help from Smetana.

The future president’s wife rested her fingers on the piano keys as the final notes of Smetana’s Moldau reverberated faintly through the room and faded into silence. She looked out over the audience. This was her favorite moment, that hovering hush before the applause. She was preparing to bow her head in graceful acknowledgement when she realized that no applause was coming. Everyone in the small Brno salon was frozen, staring forward. Their fingers still clasped the fans they had been using to move the air in the somewhat stuffy room, but now nothing moved. Mrs. Wiedermanová’s gloved fist was pressed against her mouth as if to stifle a cough.
The future president’s wife gazed in astonishment for a moment, and filled the silence with her own cough, which echoed and was promptly swallowed. So that was odd. Charlotte was a bit odd herself, but she’d never seen an entire room of people completely immobilized by a piano piece.
Of course Charlotte had seen people in general frozen like this many times before. She had just always been alone when it happened. The visions had first occurred during her childhood in Brooklyn. Practicing one afternoon at the family Steinway, she glanced out the window to see a bridge spanning the East River that had not been there before. What was equally unusual was that the people in the street were standing completely still. A sudden collection of statues, standing near a bridge that she knew wasn’t there. When she finally tore herself away from the window and started to play the piano again, the statues shimmered and vanished, replaced by people who moved normally, and the bridge disappeared. In 1883, when Charlotte was just past thirty, the bridge was finally actually built. Her family joked about little Charlotte having “predicted the future” but nobody besides Charlotte took the idea seriously.
Charlotte took everything seriously. She’d had more than a few glimpses of the future by then. Charlotte and her husband Tomáš had talked about these visions frequently. Tomáš believed that the visions that Charlotte saw were only possible futures, that it was necessary to see them as potentials. One could, Tomáš asserted, fight against the potential futures that were negative and strive for the ones that were positive. He promised her that they would work together, side by side, for the kind of future they wanted. When Alice was born, the daughter Charlotte had seen playing in the grass once when she had played piano in Leipzig, just before she met Tomáš, she decided to believe in his optimism. Against her father’s wishes, they moved to Tomáš’s country, to Prague, to begin a life together and start making their dreams come true.
While she knew better than to tell most people that she saw these visions of the future, she felt sure that what she saw could be as real and true as anything in the present. Charlotte had first seen these visions through a window, but over time she had learned to go out and walk around in them without hesitation. Time simply stopped sometimes when she played piano, always when she was alone, only when she achieved those moments that it felt like the music was flowing through her fingers. She would emerge from her playing to find that the world around her was under a spell, and it stayed that way until she pressed the keys again. All she had to do was leave the room and she entered a different version of her world filled with wonders and populated with living statues. It was a glimpse of the future, presented like Victorian tableaux. She had seen a future where women dressed just like men, in pants. So free! She knew immediately when she saw them that the theories she had been reading about men and women being equal were not mere theories, but goals to be fought for. And Tomáš believed her, believed in her. He called her Charlie and told her she was the smartest person he knew. When they got married, he took her name just as she took his; they were moving into the future that Charlie had seen.
One reason Charlie didn’t tell people about what she saw was that not all of her visions were so optimistic. After her son Jan was born, she saw futures that terrified her. She saw her son, sweet little Janíček, as an adult, crumpled on the ground below a window, and she couldn’t tell if he had fallen or if he was even alive. She saw a row of tanks rolling through these Brno streets, not once but twice. Could such things really happen in this country? Fifteen years ago, the visions had become so horrible that Charlie had thought she was losing her mind. She had heard the whispers – that she was fragile, unsteady. But to see a future so horrible and then go back to the present and smile as if she hadn’t seen the broken windows, the crying children, the streets filled with frozen fear, was sometimes more than she could bear. And Charlie was increasingly sure that she would be unable to stop any of those things from happening. She encouraged Jan to move to America, to seek his fortune from within the safety of her family there; surely he couldn’t die here if he wasn’t living here. But she hadn’t saved her daughter Eleanor from dying despite everything she had tried, and her failure to protect the tiny infant still gave her nightmares. How could she even imagine that she could stop a tank?
Gradually, despite her fears, she had come to understand that these visions were a gift, an opportunity to see what happens next, and Charlie was above all incredibly curious. And she wanted so badly to trust Tomáš: if they believed in the truth, then the truth would prevail, and then surely only the good things would happen. It was impossible that there could be such ugliness and hatred in this beautiful country in the future, impossible that the German and Russian languages could be used in signs as harsh and terrible as they had when… well, better not to think about it. Maybe that wouldn’t happen, maybe it was just one possibility.
Charlie was still sitting at the piano in a drawing room full of statues. These dignified Czechs had come here to celebrate the opening of the Brno Girl’s Academy, a manifestation of Charlie’s belief that young women should be educated just as young men were. And now they were frozen, which meant that just outside the door, there was another future awaiting her discovery. Her curiosity overcame her, and she stood and walked into the streets to see how far the spell stretched.
When she left the house, she immediately saw that this had affected far more than the group she had left sitting in the under-ventilated room. But while the people inside were frozen in 1906, the people outside were very definitely from another time. The people she passed on the street were dressed in the strangest costumes Charlie had seen in any of her visions. Women in pants, yes, and everyone in so much color. Not just the colors of their clothes, but the colors of their skin – black and smooth ebony; brown like coffee, like chocolate; pink and sun-freckled; pale as the moon – all walking together, some arm in arm. Equals.
Charlie gazed around in wonder. It was more than just the people that were different. There were far more buildings than there had ever been before, strange blocks squeezed in like extra teeth between buildings she knew well. Some of the familiar buildings looked almost exactly the same –the “four idiots” were still holding up their building in the Great Square, and Dům pánů z Lipé looked great– but some were run down, aged beyond recognition. In almost every building, the windows were lit up like the Mahen Theater, twinkling with electricity.
In front of the Reduta Theater, which was closed after the fire in 1870 but now seemed to be open again, there was a column. Above the living statues in the streets was a marble statue of a naked boy. His head was oddly mismatched, like that of an adult man. He gleamed with newness. One wing. Well, that was strange. The base of the statue said that it was Mozart, a statue of Mozart built in 2007. Just over a hundred years into the future. Charlie had never seen the future so far ahead before. She walked through the Cabbage Market, up past the Parnas water fountain, no longer covered in vines. There didn’t seem to be any beggars crowding the market, only people selling flowers and vegetables. Maybe in this future where the women’s question had been answered, other issues had also been addressed.
Charlie turned onto Elizabeth Street, walking along the base of the castle towards the red church. On her left was a building surrounded by young men and women carrying bags of books. Students! University students, judging from their ages. She went closer to look, wondering what people might study in this civilized future. Standing guard in front of the university was a column with a simple statue of an ordinary looking man. Charlie almost couldn’t believe her eyes: it was Tomáš. An older Tomáš, but the resemblance was unmistakable, and his name across the building’s façade proved it.
The base of the statue was covered in flowers and wreaths. One of the wreaths had a banner on it: Náš prezident, náš otec. Our president, our father. So someday there would be a president instead of a king! And honored in Czech instead of German. Her Tomáš, currently working as a lowly professor, was going to be a president and have a university in Brno named after him!
Charlie knelt down and touched the roses at the base of the statue, the same flower arrangements people put at the bases of statues in her own time, the time where she belonged. He had surely been dead for many years in this time of particolored clothing, but he was still loved. In that moment, Charlie knew that everything she and Tomáš wanted and worked for in their own time was certainly not a fantasy. Their dreams would have some real meaning, even far into the future. Her great-grandchildren might go to this very university, right here in Brno! She slowly raised her eyes from the flowers to read the inscription on the statue, torn momentarily between her desire to know everything and her fear of what she did not know.
T.G. Masaryk 7.3.1850 – 14.9.1937
Eighty-seven years old. He would be able to do so much in his life… he had done so much! He had been – would be – a president, a leader of a country free of empires. Suddenly, Charlie wanted nothing more than to be back in her own time with Tomáš, working for the future, for this future, with him. She turned and walked back towards Trautenbergerova, weaving between the young people with their wild hair and their crazy clothes, past the bright shop windows.
She knew that what she saw was real, a real future, as real as the Brooklyn Bridge and the births of her beloved children. Everything she had seen so far had come true in time, and everything that she had seen would happen. Her husband would be the president. And many terrible things would happen, things she had seen and things still beyond her imagining. People would suffer; her own children would suffer. But on the other side of that, a new kind of peace. An independent country, free from the distant rule of power-hungry kings. And Brno would be a city where people, men and women whose clothes and skin were different colors, would walk arm in arm down the street, their smiling faces open to futures Charlie hadn’t seen yet, hadn’t even dreamed.
The future president’s wife got back to the house and walked quietly into the drawing room. She edged past Mrs. Wiedermannová, whose hand was still at her mouth, her cough suspended. She sat at the piano, lightly brushing the keys with her fingertips. She loved playing the piano; it really was magic. But suddenly Charlie understood that she could never play piano again, could never risk stopping time again. The desire to act, even in small ways, to prevent the bad things from happening was so overwhelming. And now that she knew that things would be good in the end, she knew she had to accept the future as it was. As it would be. In one decisive move, she placed her fingers on the keys and played the simple four-note motif that was her favorite part ofMa vlast. For her, these four notes were the embodiment of Smetana, of her adopted home, the country that had adopted her: B-E-D-B. That moment of silence, broken by a sudden cough. And then applause filled the room, the applause of an audience that could never understand how much had happened, or would happen.
Charlie stood and curtseyed. She looked at her daughter Alice leaning in the doorway. Such serious eyes, as if she also understood more than she could explain. Alice, nearly 30, had believed her mother’s convictions about the equality of women. She had been the only woman in her medical classes, though the pressure of that reality was greater than her mother’s faith that she was meant to open medical clinics. She was a teacher now, here in Moravia, instead of the doctor she had wished to be, but she seemed happy. Charlie went to her daughter and embraced her, that quick American affection that had not left her despite her many years in Europe. “There is so much misery in the world, Alice,” Charlie said quietly. “But the truth, as your father says, will prevail. I know it will be good in the end.”

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