In his book Meaning, Galer wrote, “God created the human race as an experiment; He wanted to see if life was capable of creating for Him. Ultimately, He wanted us to produce beauty.” I felt that I had failed Him. I had been practicing from a young age, yet my music remained mostly devoid of beauty. And despite that fact, I continued to practice.
“It’s for my family,” I would always tell myself when I listened to myself play.
I wasn’t referring to my mother or father, but to my mid-family, the Burkes. The Burkes have been famed for their music for the past 60 years (before that, they weren’t really famous for anything). The most well-known singer’s name was John Burke Raymond. The best composer was Sophia Burke Kasparov. Burkes weren’t just everywhere in the music world. They entirely comprised it.
Even my music teacher, Ms. Tilson, was a Burke. She was very good at being a Burke. She didn’t just play well; she played with a captivating, eccentric style. She would be famous if only her personality didn’t reflect that to quite the extreme that it did. She was almost crazy.
I have never felt like a Burke. My music was bitter to the ears. People sometimes asked me if my viola was broken. The pastor who gave me my middlename at baptism continued to insist that he had given me the correct one. The pastor was a Follower of Galer who had converted from an older religion after being “shown the way” by older Followers. As a result, he had no middlename. He went by Papa Chris, and everyone in town going back two generations loved him.
One night, after a particularly bad concert for the town’s Winter Festival, when I was eleven, I asked Papa Chris if he was sure that he hadn’t made a mistake in choosing my middlename.
“Of course not! I can see you improving every day!” he said. He was lying. I’m not sure why he lied, but the forced smile on his face made the lie clear.
“Even my mom winced!” I said in protest, as if I had a point to prove.
He went on to assure me that I would get better over time. Even Burkes weren’t always prodigies, after all. Despite his reassurance, my viola still sounds like its voice is cracking whenever I try to play.
The night after the concert I dreamt I was dancing across the surface of a viola dressed in ballet clothes, desperately trying to keep up with the flawless music. It ended with me falling off the edge into the dark abyss.
These midnight terrors continue to this day: the most recent example involved me playing music for a party of fiery demons who would cook me alive if I failed. Unreality, Galer’s book on dreams, says that dreams of this sort (dreams in which the subject is forced to do something for a party of festive demons) usually represent a need for flight. Unreality is not his most religious work.
My best friend then was Jonah Rosedale Beatty. The Rosedales were known for being aristocratic. They were envied by most, and they had formed a tight alliance among themselves over time. Rosedales often came to resent their status as much as it was envied by others.
Jonah, who hardly believed that he would become rich because of his Rosedale name, often joked about his place in society. When I would desperately attempt to play my music, he would cheer me on by saying, “When I become rich, I’ll make you my head musician!” This made us both laugh, but I secretly wished that it would come true. I would daydream about conducting an orchestra in Jonah’s mansion, being applauded by the nation’s most powerful. It was one of the few things motivating me to continue.
Jonah had to leave last year. The riots in our city were getting especially bad, and Rosedales were the main target. As a result, Rosedale leaders started paying for their fellow Rosedales, whom they saw as their nieces and nephews, to leave the rioting cities. We lived in one of the safest parts of town, in a very open space where almost everybody was contented, but Jonah’s paranoid parents took the money anyway.
A few months ago, I received this letter from Jonah:
Dear Head Musician,
The country is very boring. I can’t tell my parents because that would be ungrateful, so I decided to send you a letter.
A lot of the kids here are Rosedales like me. It’s the only thing we can really bond over. One of them, Mason, is from our school in the city. Do you remember Mason? I didn’t until he approached me. I never even knew that he was a Rosedale!
The people in the countryside are excited to have us all here. They seem to be under the false impression that we’ll draw people out into their towns. They think that wherever Rosedales go, everyone else will follow. Given how much people seem to hate us, I wouldn’t agree.
The weather out here is usually very sunny and dry. In the winter, there was no snow. My parents say that I’ll be able to visit them this winter. I guess we’ll be able to see each other again! I’ll be excited to see how much my chief musician has improved!
Please write back!
It took me a month to write back. I wrote a very short letter because I honestly couldn’t think of much to say. I was especially reluctant because I didn’t want to admit that I had not improved at all. Here is my letter:
If you were hoping for improvement, you will probably be disappointed. It will be a while before I’m prepared to be your Head Musician.
It is good to hear that you are making new friends. I am looking forward to your visit.
From your friend,
He never wrote back again, probably because of my letter’s disappointing detail in comparison to his. It is almost winter now, so I suppose I’ll have to meet him soon.
* * *
This brings us to the beginning of the story that needs to be told—to the point at which things began to change for the first time in almost a century. I was at the center of this change. I might say that I even played my own small role in it.
The whole thing started when Ms. Tilson asked me to speak to her after a certain class, on November 24, exactly a month before our Winter Festival concert.
The conversation began when Ms. Tilson asked me to come to her desk.
“Robin, will you please come over here?”
Once I had reached her desk, she said, “Would you like to play a piece in the Winter Festival concert, on behalf of the school?”
For a minute I seriously considered refusing. Then, after nearly a full minute of dazed, pointless contemplation, I realized that Ms. Tilson would not take “no” for an answer. She was the reason I played that solo in sixth grade. I had refused twice, to no avail.
“Okay,” I said meekly, in a voice barely above a whisper.
Ms. Tilson’s keen musician’s ear picked up the sound. Her face immediately brightened with an eccentric smile, which was characteristic of her. She told me that I could play any song I wanted. Any at all. I ended up picking a song called “Katyusha.” It was a simple song that I had seen Sophia Burke Kasparov play a few years ago, in tribute to her country, Russia. Despite its simplicity, she had made it sound so beautiful. I wanted to do the same. I had to.
The first thing I did when I got home was tell my mom about the offer.
“I can’t wait to hear you play, sweetie!” she said with a genuine smile, unlike the lie that Papa Chris had given me. “What song are you going to play?”
“I’m playing “Katyusha.” You know, that song that Sophia Burke Kasparov played at that concert last year?”
“That’s a good choice. I remember it being very Christmas-y,” she said slowly, trying to remember that concert. I left abruptly to go to my room to practice.
I reached my room and sat down at my desk. I had the sheet music out and my instrument at the ready, and I began to interpret the notes on the page. I tried playing it slowly first, allowing the bow to quietly whine as I pulled it across the strings. I played faster, and I imagined the lyrics as I played.
I placed the bow on the strings and began to play the song in my head. “Rastsvetali yabloni i grushi,” and I made the first mistake. A terrible noise was produced as my bow slipped onto the wrong string. Despite my mistake, I continued.
“Poplyli tumany nad rekoy
Vykhodila na bereg Katyusha
Na vysokiy bereg, na krutoy.”
I figured that this was enough for self-evaluation, as the rest of the song was a simple repetition of the notes in this verse with different words. Despite the short span of time, I had still made more mistakes than I wanted to count. My instrument sounded more like it was weeping then singing.
I continued to practice for over an hour. No matter how hard I tried, the music refused to sound like it was supposed to. Soon the hour became two hours, with little progress made. I practiced every day. Sooner than I thought they would, days became weeks, and then those weeks transformed into a month. After just six weeks, four of which had turned themselves into a month, my performance was one day away.
Coincidentally, a mass riot was supposed to happen on the same day as the concert, led by a man who thought that middlenames were the root of all suffering. The neighborhood that I lived in was very unlikely to be affected, though. It was so unlikely, in fact, that Jonah was going to be able to come to my performance. Here is the letter that he sent:
Despite the rumors that my parents heard, about the rioting, I will still be able to come back for the planned week in the winter. See you then!
I was not as happy about this as Jonah was.
The last day slipped by as I desperately tried to get the music to come out right.
“Poplyli tumany nad rekoy…”
Under the stress, the lyrics played incorrectly in my head. This did not help things in the slightest. I still felt that I had improved over the course of these six weeks, even if it wasn’t perfect. It would at least be satisfactory, I thought.
My sleep that night was very restless. I could see myself playing onstage, and I was overwhelmed by a mix of excitement, dread, and terror. That night, I had the dream with the demons again.
* * *
During breakfast the next morning, my lack of sleep caused my head to ache, like a weight pulling me down. I ate my breakfast in silence, preoccupied with my own thoughts. I barely noticed my foot tapping the tune of “Katyusha.” The minutes crawled by, and I practiced for an hour or so before lunch. Then I practiced for an hour or so after lunch.
Finally, night came. My mother had dressed me formally for the occasion. We walked to the church, where the ceremonies would take place.
The Winter Festival was a holiday right before the holiest of holidays. It was a very festive occasion, full of music, dance, and other entertainment. However, it was also almost as important as the holiday it preceded. I could not afford to mess up.
* * *
When we got to the church, I was immediately brought to the corner of the room for a brief bit of practice. Ms. Tilson told me that my music sounded alright and that I should be ready to perform, which was honestly more than I expected. Mine was the second performance. I sat and waited through the first performance.
The first performance was supposed to be very long. A half-hour long, in fact. It was interrupted after 28 minutes by the sounds of breaking glass outside. Soon, the light of fire came through the windows. The church doors were broken down. A band of thugs participating in the riot had broken in.
One of the men who had broken in marched up to the stage. He was wearing dark clothes and dark glasses, like a criminal from a movie, and he was holding a torch in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. The paper seemed to be some sort of manifesto. He paused for breath, read the manifesto, and yelled: “This Festival is a celebration of the system of middlenames! The system that decides who should be rich, who should be famous, and who should be trodden upon! It is the superstitious system that has governed the lives of everyone for over 100 years! We will end its tyranny!”
Papa Chris stepped up to the stage. The girl who had been playing her music before the disruption had already fled. Papa Chris raised his hand, and the room went silent. It was as if the approaching inferno had been put on pause. He said, “Here, my son. I will prove to you that middlenames are real. Robin here is a Burke, a family well known for their music. Robin’s music will certainly show you that the prophetic nature of the middlenames ritual is not mere superstition.”
He beckoned for me to come to the stage, and I obliged. I looked into the crowd. It was full of men in dark clothes with torches. I prepared to play my song. I raised my bow to the strings of the viola.
What came next was the single noise that caused the avalanche to fall.
The man leading the rebellion laughed. The rioters began to burn the church, and we all fled. After running outside, I looked back. There was light visible inside of the church, but all that came out was smoke.
* * *
Apparently, these thugs had a point. The next day, the Eldest Brother, who was the greatest leader of Galer’s religion, wrote to every parish in the country. His letter was read by every pastor. It was read by Papa Chris among the ruins of the church.
To the People who want my decisive answer to this chaos, and to the future Scholars who want to see what it was all about,
Galer said in his final letter to his Eldest Sons, “This religion is an experiment with many parts, each devised by God, and each designed to bring peace, love, and tolerance to the newer generations of mankind.” The middlenames system was clearly a failed piece. It forced many of you, my children, into situations that you never asked for. I am sorry.
With Love to Everyone,
The Eldest Son of Galer called Michael
Within months, no one had a middlename anymore. Jonah moved back into the city now that there were no more Rosedales, and people were slightly more pleasant to each other for the time being. We still loved Galer, and I still love Galer as I write this.
But, to the future scholars who want to see what it was all about: this was my perspective.