Moonlight Waltz

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
May/June 2013

Ella Staats
Moonlight Waltz girl playing a flute

Every note was a treasure, a gold flake making its way downstream

“Kalie, have you practiced your flute yet?”

My mother’s voice squeezed under my bedroom door and rang in my ears. “Not yet…” I answered. I knew what was coming next.

“Well, do it now. Dinner’s in twenty minutes, and I know you want to watch TV before you go to bed, so you’d better get practicing or you’ll miss your program.”

I let out an exasperated sigh and slammed my book shut. I didn’t argue with her, but I wasn’t going to practice willingly either. See, both my parents are musicians. My mom’s a singer and plays a little piano. She’s been singing since she was a little girl. She had her first performance on open mike night at the Candy Bowl downtown when she was nine. Everybody loved her, and she made her first record when she was twenty-six. She met my father at the recording studio, playing guitar and mandolin for her song, “Bridge to Nowhere.” I’ve heard the story of how they fell in love so many times, I’ve memorized it by now. It always ends in the studio, with my mom telling me, “It was love at first sight, naturally. Eight years later we got married, right there in that studio on the very day my second album was released.” Then she and my dad exchange loving looks, and then she says the last line, which is the one I dread the most: “And now, here you are, going to carry on in our footsteps!”

But I think they got their hopes up a little too high. Because, to tell the truth, the one thing I hate most in the world is playing my flute. My parents decided that four was the appropriate age to get me started on an instrument, so they took me to a bunch of concerts with different instruments like guitars and pianos and violins and stuff. I think that the only reason I picked the flute was because that was the only concert I wasn’t napping through.

It looked easy for the performers up there on stage. They just blew into their instrument and—voila!—out came a chorus of beautiful, soothing tones. Unfortunately, playing the flute really isn’t that easy. I couldn’t get my lips into the right position, and even when I could, when I tried to blow a note, it came out sounding like, well, someone was blowing air through a piece of metal. Which is to say, incorrect.

My parents encouraged me throughout all my toil and tantrums. They never gave up hope in me, but sometimes I caught them exchanging worried glances back and forth. When I saw those glances I knew that I would never be good at the flute, no matter how hard I practiced. I would never perform on stage in front of an audience, and even if I got the chance, they would probably boo me off stage. Sorry, Mom, I thought sadly, sorry, Dad. I guess your daughter’s just not turning out what you want her to be.

With a groan, I slouched off my bed and took my flute case down from the shelf. I opened it up, rubbed the red velvet lining for good luck like always, and then took out the shiny silver pieces of my flute and carefully assembled them. Then I went and stood in the corner of my room reserved for practicing, ignoring the numerous posters of famous musicians I barely knew the names of, all of them wearing weird-looking wigs, with slogans like, “Beethoven Would Have Applauded for You!” I snorted. Fat chance.

I stood in front of my music stand and flipped through my book of tunes. I scanned the pages, reading the names off out loud. “Sweetwater Serenade,” “Angel Promenade,” “Fairy Ring,” “The Velvet Slipper Tune.” I had attempted to play them all, failing each one worse than the last. Finally, I decided on “The Velvet Slipper Tune,” just to get it over with and because it looked like it had the easiest notes.

I raised the cold metal of the flute to my lips and tentatively blew the first note. It sounded too breathy and kind of high pitched. Whoops, I had gotten the fingering wrong. Frustrated, I positioned my fingers right and began to play the tune, greatly aware of the fact that I sounded a bit sharp. Who cared? Not me. Not bothering to fix the problem, I played on. The end of the piece was a little wobbly, but whatever. There. It was over with. And just in time, too.

“Ka-lie! Din-ner!” my mom called up the stairs. She rapped on the ceiling below my bedroom with the broom handle, then fell silent.

I hastily disassembled my flute and tucked it away in my case, rubbing the velvet as customary. Shoving the case back on the shelf, I clomped downstairs and into the kitchen, where my mom was just serving my dad chicken pot pie.

I plopped down in my seat and spread out a napkin in my lap. I held out my plate expectantly, and my mom put a piece of pie on it. I stuffed my face and washed it down with milk, and had already finished my first piece by the time my parents were halfway through theirs.

“How did practicing go?” my dad asked expectantly, as he always did during dinner.

“Oh, fine, you know,” I said, serving myself another piece of pie. But it hadn’t been fine, and I had a feeling he knew it.

Moonlight Waltz eating dinner

“Would you like to give us a concert after dinner?”

“Would you like to give us a concert after dinner?” my mom asked, daintily spearing a piece of chicken on her fork. It wasn’t just a question, that much I knew. It was my doom. Guiltily, I nodded. Just wait until they heard how awful I was, not that they didn’t already know. But every time I played for them, sounding just as terrible as the last time they had heard me, their disappointed expressions made me more and more sure that I would never live up to their expectations.

*          *          *

I tried to make dinner drag on forever, but after my fourth piece of pie, I was getting pretty full. I didn’t even bother trying to eat the rich and spongy chocolate cake my mom had brought home, left over from lunch at the studio. Even if I hadn’t been gorged on pie, I don’t think I would have had the appetite for it anyway. Finally, all the plates had been cleared and washed, and I knew it was time for me to show off the fact that I had no talent for music whatsoever.

My parents settled down on the leather couch in the living room, hands folded on their laps, while I went upstairs to get my flute and my music ready. When I came back down, arms loaded with my stand, book, and flute case, my mom had her camera out, ready to videotape my performance. The video wouldn’t have much to show, that much I knew.

I set up my stand and opened my music to “The Velvet Slipper Tune,” smiling nervously at my audience. Even though it was just my mom and dad, I had bullfrogs hopping around in my stomach. Imagine how awful it would be if I was in front of a whole crowd of people!

I readied my flute and took a deep breath. I glanced out at my parents one more time. They were smiling, but I knew they wouldn’t be by the end of my performance. The red light on my mom’s camera was flashing, capturing the whole thing on tape. It’s now or never, I told myself, and then nervously began the tune. Unfortunately, practicing it hadn’t made me at all better. This time, instead of sharp, it was flat, and I lost my breath and cracked in odd places where I wasn’t supposed to breathe. And I played the last four measures in a different key than the rest of the song, a major embarrassment!

I slowly set down my flute on the stand, not daring to look up at my mom and dad. But curiosity forced me to. They weren’t clapping. They were just looking at me, their expressions clearly stating that I had let them down. My mom turned off her camera. Then, like they thought I couldn’t see them, they exchanged glances. Not excited, happy glances, disappointed ones, like they were thinking, I can’t believe this girl is our daughter. Guilt settled over me like a lead blanket that I couldn’t shake off. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. I couldn’t look directly at them.

“Honey, I think maybe you should go practice some more,” my mom said finally.

Unable to form words, I just nodded mutely. My lower lip quivered. Then, for no reason, I grabbed my flute, my stand, and my book and turned and fled out the back door. Why, I had no idea. I just wanted to be outside with nature right now, even if it was pitch dark. Neither my mom nor my dad protested.

Outside, the spring air was warm with a dewy feel to it. I could make out the shadow of the old elm tree, and the silhouettes of the tall flower stalks swaying slightly in the breeze. The calm wind rippled my auburn hair and brushed gently against my freckled face like the comforting hand of a mother on her child’s cheek. There was no sound of the nighttime animals; it was completely silent. The only light came from the full, round moon and the glittering stars. The moon was more beautiful than I had ever seen in my life, shedding silver light down on the world.

I wouldn’t have been able to see my music, set up on the stand in the middle of the yard, if it wasn’t for the glow of the moon. I reached out and flipped to a random page of my music book I had never seen before. The tune was called “Moonlight Waltz.” Perfect.

I took a calm, deep breath. I felt completely at peace, more relaxed than I had ever been before when playing music. Somehow, that reassured me as I pressed my flute to my lips. Then, without thinking, I blew the first note. To my surprise, it came out sounding clean and crisp. Encouraged, I blew a whole measure. Mesmerizing music floated into the air and was whisked away on the breeze.

I flowed through the rest of the piece like a steady, crystal river. Every note was a treasure, a gold flake making its way downstream. And this time, there was no one there to be desperately mining out those flakes, depriving the river of its true beauty.

I closed my eyes and played the piece again. It was just as good as the first time, rich, clean musical tones overflowing from my lips. Not wanting to break the spell of awe that had fallen over me, I didn’t attempt any other tunes. At least not for now. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day. Maybe never. But I knew now that I would always be satisfied with my playing, because this night taught me that I could. Even if the rest of my musical career went downhill, tonight would be a night that would keep me from despair.

I was smiling brighter than the full moon as I picked up my stand, music, and flute and started back towards the house. Then I stopped dead. There were my mom and dad, standing on the back porch, arm in arm. They had been watching me the whole time. I was sure they were going to have those heartbreaking looks on their faces, and I confirmed my dread when I saw tears in my mom’s eyes. But… the corners of her mouth were upturned in pure happiness. My dad was grinning. They weren’t mad, they were proud. They held out their arms to me, and I ran into them, overflowing with joy.

“We knew you had it in you,” my dad told me, holding me tight and ruffling my hair.

“It was there the whole time. But it can’t be forced out of you,” my mom whispered. “It’s untamable, wild. It just has to be set free.”

“I know,” I whispered back.

I peered out back at the glowing orb in the sky. The Old Man in the Moon almost seemed to be smiling.

Moonlight Waltz Ella Staats

Ella Staats, 12
Burlington, Vermont

Moonlight Waltz Isabel Won

Isabel Won, 13
Belle Mead, New Jersey

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