A Stroke of the Bow

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
May/June 2003

By Megan Gannett, Illustrated by Leigh Marie Marshall

It had been almost a year since that fateful day last June when Lucy Livingstone’s baby boy had died at the age of ten days. Catriona Livingstone, her twelve-year-old daughter, was accompanying Mr. and Mrs. Livingstone to the cemetery to visit her brother on what would have been his first birthday. The day was cloudy, with a hint of rain in the air, quite unlike the lovely June day when Ty, her brother, had been born. Catriona was somber as they drove through the dreary streets to the graveyard, but inside she was concentrating on her hope that after this day her mother would be less grieved and her father less tense. She didn’t know why she expected this; probably because it had been almost a year since their son’s death and she thought it time to get on with life, and stop dwelling on the past.

Catriona, too, had suffered for days after the loss of him, as had her parents, for she’d welcomed her new sibling into the world graciously; she even decorated his future room and attended a baby-sitter’s course to learn how to care for babies. But now she was ready to move on, eager to hear her mother laugh again and her father crack silly jokes once more. Today, in the car, she felt she’d burst if things didn’t change soon.

Stroke of the Bow girl sitting in graveyard

She decided to go sit down awhile, somewhere she could think things out

“We turn here,” said Mrs. Livingstone stiffly to her husband, who was driving. He nodded dismally, and flicked on the signal. Catriona began to idly drum her fingers in time to it, but one stern look from her mother silenced her. In a moment the car had turned into the parking lot, and the three of them got out, Catriona hurriedly—she was tired of sitting in the gloomy atmosphere of the car. Mrs. Livingstone set off at a brisk pace, and Mr. Livingstone and Catriona followed, the silence unbroken except for the sound of their feet on the grass and the wind in the trees. Ty’s grave was a small one, hidden behind a neatly tended wild rose bush. Mrs. Livingstone knelt down when they reached it, her fingers trembling as she touched the cold stone. Catriona peered over her shoulder to read the inscription.

Tynan Philip Livingstone, son of Lucy and Bradley Livingstone. Born June 8th, woo, died June 8th, 2000. Rest in Peace.

Under the headstone bearing these words, her baby brother’s body lay, imprisoned by the chilled earth. Catriona’s heart ached for something she could do to bring him back again. She wanted to complete the family, add the missing piece. But he was gone, and no one could ever restore his life.

Mr. Livingstone, Mrs. Livingstone and Catriona remained silent for a few moments, their thoughts as bleak as the gray sky. Finally Mr. Livingstone murmured, “He would have been a good boy, I’m sure of it.”

Catriona sighed and straightened up. She decided to go sit down awhile, somewhere she could think things out. In a soft voice, she excused herself, and hurried over to a neighboring spruce tree. Its branches formed a low canopy, so she crept under it to seek shelter for her thoughts.

Her feelings had been mixed and twisted together since her brother had died. First of all, she had been swallowed in sadness, her own and that of the people around her. Next, her feelings had been regret and longing, and reluctance to accept the fact that he was gone—never to return. Further, still, into the following year, she had felt neglected, and bitter over the fact that her parents were rather guiltlessly ignoring her. And, finally, she had become impatient and rebellious, angry that her parents couldn’t—or wouldn’t—get over their lost infant.

Lately, Catriona had been enduring a detestable combination of each, unable to pick apart her complex thoughts. One day one feeling would overcome her, the following day, a next. Now, as she sat in the protective security within the dark spruce’s greenery, she pondered this as the gentle lull of the tree’s slight swaying coincided with her parents’ hushed conversing.

What to do? Catriona’s thoughts were being interloped by the realization of the truth; her parents weren’t likely to come home any differently than they had arrived, she had seen it in her mother’s eyes as she fingered the headstone. Should she speak to them about her feelings and demand change? Or should she continue to bear the burden of emotional loneliness? She couldn’t decide. She would have to simply practice the virtue of patience. And, she thought ruefully, I might as well begin now . . . who knows how long I have to wait.

*          *          *

When Catriona arrived home that day she went off to attend a dress rehearsal for a concert she was in. She played the violin, or rather the fiddle, as it was called in the Celtic fiddling group in which she was involved. The concert was on one of the main stages in town, and Catriona was both apprehensive and excited about it.

At the rehearsal, however, as her fingers flew over the strings and she drew quick, light bows, as her foot kept the beat by tapping the floor, she forgot about the stress which barred her way. She forgot her muddled feelings, she forgot how her hopes for a new beginning had just been dashed, and how her mother had rushed to her room and wept uncontrollably when they’d returned home. All she focused on was the optimistic laughter soaring from the fiddles, and the joy that music brought her.

During the last tune, a slow and mournful melody, Duana, Catriona’s talented instructor, stopped the group.

“Excellent. As long as you play from your heart and blend together as one, this will be superb.” She beamed reassuringly at Catriona, one of the youngest (many were adults). “I believe we are behind time, so I’ll let you scatter. See you there on the big day. Practice hard!” And to Catriona, reading her mind, “Don’t worry, lassie. You’ll be fine.”

Catriona hoped she would, but she knew she’d have no trouble “practicing.” Fiddling was one of her main escapes from life these days, and she truly enjoyed sharpening her skills.

On the way home from the rehearsal that night, she thought about how grateful she was to Duana as a teacher. Always calm, encouraging and understanding, she was an important figure in Catriona’s life. Catriona had been taking lessons with her since she was eight; four years ago. But she’d only joined the fiddling group this year—this was her first performance—and Duana had always been there, patiently helping her along. Catriona felt she owed a lot to her for this.

Now Catriona had reached her house, so she turned in the gate and swung it shut, before proceeding up the walk. Suddenly she halted and took a deep breath. Already she could feel her stomach contracting due to the unpleasant tinge of tension lingering in the area. It was with great hesitance that she resumed her step, as the chilling feeling grew colder in her stomach.

*          *          *

“Mom, do you mean to tell me that you’re not coming to see me play at the most popular stage in town?” demanded Catriona, astonished, as she stood beside Mrs. Livingstone in the kitchen, peeling potatoes for dinner.

“Catriona, don’t be so raucous,” snapped her mother sharply, pausing briefly to scold her daughter. “I just can’t bear to see you play happy music to happy people for their merriment when our family is in mourning. I’ve told you . . .”

“In mourning!” spluttered Catriona angrily. “Your baby’s been dead for a year, a baby you only knew for ten days, and yet you won’t come and see me in a concert I’ve been preparing for all year! I might as well not go!”

At this point Mrs. Livingstone broke down, weeping, and Catriona, being so worked up, followed suit. “You just won’t understand!” wailed her mother. “You just won’t understand.”

Catriona tried to calm herself down, her and her mother both, taking one deep, shaky breath after another.

“Mom,” she whispered, tears sliding steadily down her face. “Mom, I’m sorry.” She put her arms awkwardly around Mrs. Livingstone, and Mrs. Livingstone hugged her back. As they clung to each other, Catriona mumbled, “I understand. Maybe . . . maybe next year you’ll be ready to see me in concert.”

And, with one last embrace, Catriona released her mother, and picked up the potato peeler once more.

*          *          *

Saturday morning, Catrioria’s big day, dawned bright and fair. It was a breath of fresh, sweet air after weeks of stormy weather and cloudy skies. At eight in the morning, the only one awake yet, Catriona was getting ready for her appearance onstage.

She stood in front of the bathroom mirror, combing through her thick, short, light brown hair. Reflected, she saw her face flushed with excitement and anticipation, but Catriona knew something the mirror didn’t, and couldn’t, reflect. Something deep from inside her, that only she could feel. It was a feeling of regret, reproach, and—could it be?— anger.

It was her parents’ failure to agree to come to her performance, of course. She had told her mother she understood, but she didn’t really; she still believed all the harsh words she’d pelted her mother with two nights ago. However, this was where her main confusion pooled: why wasn’t her father coming to watch her? He had a ticket; both of her parents did. And he wasn’t still suffering from grief like his wife was . . .

At least not to the same degree, thought Catriona, yanking her comb through her hair so fiercely that a few hairs were pulled out.

Mr. Livingstone wasn’t about to collapse in hysterics at the sound of fiddle music, so why wasn’t he coming? His excuse was that “something had come up at work.” Which was true, of course, but he’d surely be able to make an exception, just once. Catriona just couldn’t comprehend it.

*          *          *

Exactly three hours later, Catriona stood backstage with Duana and her fellow fiddlers, clutching her fiddle nervously. They would soon be playing on that famous stage, from which a pin dropping to the floor could be heard. What if Catriona let down the whole group, and made a mistake? She couldn’t face the disagreeable thought. Then, just as she was hoping the Highland dancers before them would be on for a long time, she heard the audience clapping loudly and knew it was their turn. She was right, because suddenly Duana became all business-like, directing them into their performance formation. Catriona took her place in between the only other kids in the group: Brenda, who was eleven, and Cormac, who was fourteen. With butterflies in her stomach, and her hands growing sweatier by the second, she followed the circular hallway backstage, around to the entrance on the left side.

Stroke of the Bow girl conducting orchestra

She played with all her might, letting the sound penetrate through her

And then they walked onstage.

Catriona gasped in dismay as she laid eyes on the hundreds of people packed in the theater. She, play for all of them?! Her knees began to shake and her hands to tremble. If only her family had been out there—for sheer comfort!

But that couldn’t be helped now. Breathing quickly, Catriona moved like a wooden doll, lifting her fiddle to her shoulder on Duana’s cue, but in a superficial state all the while. Before she knew it, they had started to play.

At once, warm, glorious music filled Catriona’s heart. She played with all her might, letting the sound penetrate through her, saturate her with wonder. She wasn’t nervous anymore; this was spectacular. She wished this was an everyday occurrence.

It seemed to all go by in a minute. Soon they were on their final tune, the sad, sorrowful, lonesome one. Catriona played it for her brother, Ty, for her parents, who, because of their lasting grief, couldn’t be present. She played for everyone else in the world who needed to hear this music resonate through this building, music speaking so simply without words. And as she drew her last bow, she felt a strange feeling wash over her. She no longer felt that grudge against her parents for not coming that day, but an understanding and a willingness to forgive.

*          *          *

“Catriona! Catriona Erin Livingstone!”

Catriona spun around, to see her mother and father standing near the door separating the lobby from backstage. She ran over to them.

“Mom, Dad. What are you doing here?” Their daughter was utterly amazed.

“Oh, Catriona!” Mrs. Livingstone squeezed her in a tight hug, and Catriona was surprised to see tears in her eyes. “We just had to come, we couldn’t disappoint you so! I’m extremely sorry for the way I’ve been acting! I haven’t been playing my role as a mother, and . . .”

“I haven’t been playing my role as a father,” finished Mr. Livingstone apologetically, his own eyes moist.

“I feel so ignorant,” confessed poor Mrs. Livingstone. “Fiddle music isn’t all happy and joyful, and . . . and that l- last number really g- got to- to me.” She fought to control herself. “No, Catriona, dear, I’m- I’m ready to begin fresh. To put the past behind me, and look to the future. I- I just hope you’ll forgive me.”

Several emotions took hold of Catriona. She wanted both to laugh and cry, but she just embraced her mother, unable to speak, and her mother understood. Then she did the same to her father, a weight lifting clear off her heart. Things would change. Ty was gone, but his memory lived on, and it was time for carrying on down the path of life.

And Catriona had started them on their journey, with a stroke of her bow.

Megan Gannett, 13
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Stroke of the Bow Leigh Marie Marshall

Leigh Marie Marshall, 12
San Francisco, California

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